Music is sound. Sound is heard. But music is so much more.
Music ignites the brain, orchestrating a neural symphony between the ears. A melody drifts into the ear, spirals down the cochlea, drops individual tones onto waiting receptors. Tones are deconstructed and launched out on a variety of trajectories, simultaneously activating multiple regions of the brain to process the wealth of information embedded in the music. Consider listening to your favorite song; memories and emotions are triggered, the beat plays out in your head, you smile or cry, your body dances in time. Surely experience shapes these perceptions, assigning meaning and emotion to songs. But is the neuronal encoding for musical information actually formed by these experiences or is it an intrinsic property of merely being human?
The adult auditory system is asymmetrical, the right side associated with music and the left with speech. In 2010 researchers in the field of cognition asked if the neural correlates for asymmetrical sound processing were already in place at birth (Perani et al., 2010). To answer this question, they imaged the brains of peacefully sleeping swaddled newborns, only 1 to 3 days from the womb, while playing piano excerpts from top composers of the Baroque and Classical eras. Next, they challenged the babies’ brains by shifting the key of the music, effectively altering the music’s tonal context while maintaining its musical integrity. This allowed the researchers to not only ask how music is perceived outside of rich contextual landscape of experience but also how this perception could be altered by structural changes to the melody.
Music entered the babies’ brains and traveled to the most likely of places, the right (musical) auditory cortex. The auditory cortex is subdivided into hierarchal layers – the primary, secondary, and tertiary cortices. After the initial receipt of musical tones in the primary cortex the other two regions are typically recruited for decoding of complex melodic structures and to initiate motor responses (i.e. tapping and dancing to the beat). At only three days of age the babies’ brains were already engaging all three auditory cortices in an asymmetrical manner. But the music did not stop there; it traveled into the emotional processing centers of the right brain as well. This suggests that the babies were not only perceiving and processing the music but they were also ‘feeling it’.
So what happened when the music tones were altered? When the researchers played the same music but with shifted tonal structure the babies’ brains lit up in both the right and left auditory cortices and emotional processing centers. Why, if the altered music maintained a musical quality, did the left (speech) auditory cortex get involved? In adults we see this left-sided pattern of brain activation when trying to discern irregularities in sound patterns. Perhaps, then, the unexpected nature of the altered tones spiked the little ones’ curiosity, causing them to send the music to the left side of their brains to figure it out. Given that the altered music was still musical in nature this left-side switch likely was the result of surprise associated with the tonal shift instead of failure to recognize the music as, well, music.
Instinctively we know that music can soothe and engage our babies but the degree and effect of this engagement has remained elusive. Overall, this study showed that babies are born into this world with a neural asymmetry for sound processing and a neural-based sensitivity to the structure of sound. Likely this framework was established before birth, even as early as the onset of hearing at only 16 weeks’ gestation. These results are particularly intriguing in the context of the prevailing “use it or lose it” hypothesis in the field of cognitive neuroscience. This hypothesis states that the more a neural circuit is engaged early in life the stronger it becomes, forming a neural scaffold on which learning is built. Conversely, circuits that are not engaged lose strength and disappear from the neural framework. Use it or lose it. This research suggests that music can be used in a new and unexpected way to differentially induce and reinforce neural pathways that may not be activated by traditional music in a newborn baby’s brain.
Perani, D., Saccuman, M. C., Scifo, P., Spada, D., Andreolli, G., Rovelli, R., . . . Koelsch, S. (2010). Functional specializations for music processing in the human newborn brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(10), 4758-4763.
Social Interaction: The Missing Link in Your Baby’s Learning
The power of song to both soothe and stimulate babies is a universally known truth. Mothers instinctively respond to their baby’s cries by rocking them gently while singing sweet melodic songs, inducing a sense of calm and peace. As babies grow and begin to explore their world song is used to stimulate learning. Consider the classic learning song “Head, shoulders, knees and toes”, this is a fun, engaging way to learn the parts of our bodies which, otherwise, might be all together uninteresting.
Using music to promote emotional calm and enhance learning is far from novel, but how and why does it work? Over the past two decades neuroscientists have sought to understand underlying mechanisms and outcomes of music engagement in promoting infant cognitive, emotional, and social development.
In 2012, researchers from McMaster University asked if music exposure could positively impact brain cognition and development in babies during brief but critical window of time, from 6 – 12 months of age. During this time babies transition from being able to recognize all possible sounds to only focusing on the sounds they actively hear, i.e they become culture-bound listeners. Scientists have dubbed this the “use it or lose it” hypothesis; if babies do not hear specific sounds during this time then they lose their ability to accurately perceive them by one year of age [see Surveying Sound: Your Baby’s First Critical Window].
This study compared the effects of two different types of music exposure – Active and Passive – with no musical interventions in babies starting at 6 months of age, at the opening of this critical window. In the Active group, babies actively engaged in music playing and listening with their parent. In the Passive group, babies engaged in normal everyday play while Baby Einstein™ CD’s played in the background. The main differences between these groups was that the Active group reinforced learning through repetition, used positive social interaction to enhance learning, and emphasized music quality.
After six months the researchers tested their little subjects on their preference for Western tones, their ability to discriminate novel sounds, their emotional response to novel sounds, and their overall ability to communicate. In each parameter tested, the babies who had Active music exposure scored significantly higher than the other two groups. There was little difference between the Passive group and babies receiving no music interventions. Thus, this study concluded music enhances cognitive, emotional, and social development only when exposure is in the context of active learning and social interaction (Gerry, Unrau, & Trainor, 2012).
This need for social interaction in infant learning is echoed in research on language acquisition. Researchers have found that babies are only perceptive to foreign language sounds when they directly interact with another human ; babies exposed to foreign language through passive exposure such as watching a foreign speaker on tv (Kuhl, Tsao, & Liu, 2003) or watching Baby Einstein™ CD’s (DeLoache et al., 2010) do not learn the foreign language sounds.
All caretakers can likely attest that infants are social learners; If imitation is truly the highest form of flattery, then infants surely are the greatest charmers. However, the absolute need for this interaction to improve cognitive outcomes from learning experiences was unknown. These studies highlight a currently overlooked yet critical component of learning that is absent from most educational baby products on the market – the need for human interaction during the process of learning.
DeLoache, J. S., Chiong, C., Sherman, K., Islam, N., Vanderborght, M., Troseth, G. L., . . . O’Doherty, K. (2010). Do babies learn from baby media? Psychological Science.
Gerry, D., Unrau, A., & Trainor, L. J. (2012). Active music classes in infancy enhance musical, communicative and social development. Developmental science, 15(3), 398-407.
Kuhl, P. K., Tsao, F.-M., & Liu, H.-M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(15), 9096-9101.