University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Babies Master Music

The UNLV psychology department is looking deeper into how infants learn and interpret music and rhythmic patterns with a series of studies in their auditory cognition and development lab.

The lab is conducting several studies aimed at determining how the brains of babies between three months and one year old respond to sights and sounds.

“We are really interested in seeing how they know what is what,” said Erin Hannon, the supervising psychology professor of the lab. “We want to see how music and language are or are not related.”

In the studies, the infants sit on a parent’s lap and listen to different types of music while looking at images on display. Hannon and her colleagues measure how long the infants look at and stay interested in certain displays.

“We found that most babies liked to look at images longer when they were associated with music that they were familiar with and liked,” Hannon said.

She added, “Most of the infants preferred music from their own cultures.”

Hannon talked about some of the differences in how infants perceive music in language as opposed to adults.

“Adults learn to ignore tone and melody in language,” Hannon said. “But babies, when they are young, see melody as important and take notice of it in people’s speech patterns. This poses the question of ‘Is the brain wired to see language and music as one or separately?’”

Joel Snyder, professor of cognitive neuroscience in psychology, explained how the brain responds to sounds.

“Humans convert sound energy into neural-electrical signals in the ears and the neural signals are sent to different areas of the brain before reaching the primary auditory cortex,” Snyder said.

He explained that music in particular engages the auditory system in a major way because it activates areas of the brain involved in movement and emotion.

Snyder went on to describe how he believes infants learn about music and different rhythmic patterns.

Snyder said that very young infants begin learning about the music around them even before birth. They become familiar with pieces of music they hear and begin to learn more abstract information about the rules that are common in their culture’s music in terms of melodies, harmonies and rhythms.

Hannon and Snyder talked about culture and the affect it has on infants’ cognitive development.

“We are interested in the brain and cognitive abilities, how culture shapes what we know about music and language and how children benefit from learning about their own cultures and other cultures,” Hannon said.

“Since different cultures have different musical styles, infants of different cultures internalize different musical rules,” Snyder said. “But there certainly are a lot of commonalities between music of different cultures too, so it’s not as if infants of different cultures have completely different experiences.”

Hannon explained how she believes the auditory cognition and development lab will help contribute to the general knowledge about infant and child development.

“There is a big hole in the current knowledge that we have about music. The more that people understand about it, the more they can benefit from it. Learning about how infants perceive and interpret music will help us to see how they learn about language and various other things,” Hannon said.

Snyder described how he believes parents can promote healthy cognitive development in their infants through music.

“I think it’s good to expose children to a lot of music, encourage them to dance and sing and make music themselves, talk to them about the style and emotion and instruments in music and make it all fun,” Snyder said.

Results from the auditory cognition and development lab studies will be released later this year.