It is well known that music can soothe both humans and animals, from a frantic baby to a savage beast. Science corroborates this fact, with research indicating that music reaches something deep inside the mind of small children, even before they can talk.
In reference to a YouTube video showing an infant smiling tearfully as her mother sings a bittersweet Rod Stewart ballad, Dr. Laurel Trainor, director of Institute for Music and Mind at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, argued that young infants, indeed, respond to specific types of musical sounds and vocalizations, but it is hard to determine whether the child in the clip is responding to the facial expressions of the mother, the emotional content of the music, or some other stimuli.
Babies Have Innate Musical Preferences
According to Dr. Trainor, there are some innate preferences or sensitivities when it comes to music or any sounds. Some studies, for instance, have shown that infants prefer to hear happy voices over sad or angry ones. They also respond better to ‘consonant’ combinations over ‘dissonant’ ones, which is also what most adults prefer.
Dissonance refers to interference patterns that give the sensation of roughness when the harmonics across two or more tones are close, but have different frequencies. Infants are more sensitive to this difference, which is why they don’t like these combinations.
Infants also like “infant-directed” singing, which is when parents sing to them in a different way from other kinds of singing, characterized by conversational style, slow tempo, high pitch, lots of repetition, and a loving tone of voice. According to Dr. Trainor, babies prefer this kind of singing over all other styles.
Another musical element that infants are sensitive to is the tempo. Apparently, infants are excellent pitch processors, and can easily identify up and down changes in pitch contour of a melody. In fact, they are so sensitive that they can notice when the wrong note is played. They cannot, however, identify a wrong key, at least until they’re 12 months old.
Are Some Musical Genres Better For Infants Than Others?
There are arguments that classical music is the best genre for babies’ brain development, but Dr. Trainor argues that all genres have the same effect. That said, whatever sensory experience babies have affects the development of their brain, and music is no exception.