Mozart in the Crib? How Music Fosters Learning In The Infant Brain

music infant

For centuries, lullabies have been used by various cultures around the world to pass down cultural knowledge and tradition, but most importantly they facilitate a nurturing relationship between caregiver and child. They have been seen to develop infants’ communication skills and attentive awareness, modulate arousal, and regulate behavior. Traditionally, lullabies have been sung with simple melodic lines that make use of repetitive themes and consonant intervals. So, why do they work — and how?

A study from McMaster University, published by Drs. Laurel Trainor, Christine Tsang, and Vivian Cheung, has proved the long-held notion that infants do in fact prefer consonant intervals (calm and agreeable) more so than dissonant ones (which build up tension and desire for consonant intervals). Preliminary studies have also shown how continuous exposure to music from a parent or caregiver has taught infants how to remember simple melodies over a period of several weeks, distinguish metrical structures, and even integrate movement and auditory information from some of the more complex meters.

In order to further understand how music nurtures an infant’s ability to process information, we must understand the rapidly changing neurological environment present in the brains of newborns. It is by recognizing the incredibly malleable structure of a baby’s developing brain that allows us to successfully present music to infants and babies in ways that may facilitate the growth of healthy cognitive and behavioral skills.

Babies are born with about 100 billion neurons, the amount they will have for the rest of their lives, with each neuron containing about 2,500 synapses. By the age of 3, each neuron of a baby’s brain has about 15,000 synapses and continues to grow, creating trillions and trillions of connections (much more than they will need in adulthood). But by having many more synapses than is needed, along with a low amount of inhibitory neurotransmitters, an infant’s perception of reality is much less focused than an adult’s.

Similar to how a lantern’s light scatters and touches everything in a surrounding room, a baby’s attention is broad and nonselective. This allows stimuli in the environment — any music, movement, or smells — to initiate a process within the brain called pruning. As an infant’s brain learns about the environment, pruning begins to strategically shape and rewire particular neuronal networks while discarding the ones it sees as unimportant. An easy way to observe this process of pruning is by noticing how a baby gradually singles out particular stimuli over time. When babies learn how to attend to certain stimuli, such as their mother’s voice, they may make a sound, like some type of babble, to convey their interest.

Babbling, which is typically thought of as baby gibberish, is actually an important indicator of learning and a forerunner of language development. Dr. Lise Eliot, neuroscientist and author of “What’s Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life,” describes how important it is for parents to talk to their babies: “The only thing we know of, that makes babies smarter, is talking to them.” By responding between the pauses of an infant’s vocalizations, parents are able to crucially affect how babies learn about sound, language, and emotion — an effect that has many positive repercussions later in life.

Dr. Michael Goldstein, an assistant professor of psychology at Cornell University, describes how a baby’s brain has specifically evolved to use the responses of caregivers to develop cognitive skills: “Babies divide up the world between things that respond to them and things that don’t, and things that don’t, don’t teach.” So what triggers an infant’s brain to decide that something is worth committing to memory?

A study published out of McMaster University by Dr. David Gerry, along with others, in both Developmental Science and Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, entitled “Active Music Classes in Infancy Enhance Musical, Communicative and Social Development,” investigated whether active musical experience in infancy enhances sensitivity to Western tonality more than just merely listening, and whether engaging in active music-making between parents and infants promotes any social, emotional, and communicative development. You’ve probably heard by now that listening to Mozart can enhance your IQ, but what about other cultures where music theory isn’t quite the same as in the West?

Gerry’s study consisted of 52 infants, 6 months of age, and their parents, who were randomly assigned to either an active music class — in which parents were active participants in learning basic movement exercises, singing, playing instruments, and building a repertoire of songs with their babies — or a passive music class — in which parents and their babies freely played with books, balls, and blocks while music from the popular Baby Einstein company played in the background. Each of the classes met for an hour per week for six months and the groups were encouraged to practice the assigned intervention at home with their babies. After the six-month study, researchers compared infants in the two groups.

At the end of the study, the researchers concluded that those infants who participated in the active-listening intervention smiled more, communicated better, and showed more sophisticated brain responses to music when compared to infants in the passive-listening intervention.

Dr. Laurel Trainor, director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, was one of the head researchers of the study. According to her: “Babies who participated in the interactive music classes with their parents showed earlier sensitivity to the pitch structure in music. Specifically, they preferred to listen to a version of a piano piece that stayed in key, versus a version that included out-of-key notes. Infants who participated in the passive-listening classes did not show the same preferences. Even their brains responded to music differently. Infants from the interactive music classes showed larger and/or earlier brain responses to musical tones.”

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