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From placenta to play centre

What the fetus may have heard

One of my favourite pieces of music is Nessun Dorma, an aria from the opera Turandot.

Ok, so I may just have won first-place in ‘the most pompous opening sentence to a column ever’ competition, but it’s true, I love that piece of music. The humming violins, the massed choir, those final two soaring notes – it can give me goosebumps just thinking of it.

But maybe I just like my music sung by sweaty, overweight, hirsute men, because I must also admit to being quite fond of Meatloaf (the singing kind). My secret shame is that I even went to one of his concerts. Despite Mr Loaf clearly not knowing what city he was in, and despite his vocal acrobatics travelling in a completely different direction to the tune (or any tune), I loved every minute of it.

Music as a lingua franca

Music is the universal language of humans; a lingua franca that we share from the jungles of the Amazon to the nightclubs of Berlin.

It’s amazing how important music is to our lives. Even the first few notes of a song can act like a time machine, transporting you back to your childhood (Uptown Girl), your high-school years (Bitter Sweet Symphony) and perhaps one of those times during uni when you drank a little too much (American Pie), with the added benefit (or hindrance) of having all of those same emotions pulsing through your body.

While the lyrics can add another dimension to a piece of music (would The Music of the Night be so powerful if we didn’t so viscerally feel the Phantom’s pain?), they aren’t always necessary. I didn’t have to know why Pavarotti was crying out for his Princepessa, or what Meatloaf would or wouldn’t do for love, I fell in love with the emotion of the music.

Children and music

Children love music too. If you’ve ever seen a youngster move and groove to the exaggerated rhythms of The Wiggles or Hi 5 (or, in my day, Peter Coombe!), then you’ve seen the very personification of unbridled joy.

Science has cottoned on to this, and is providing more and more evidence that music is the first language of every child.

Let’s start with the womb, where a recent study has shown the even fetuses have an ear for a good tune.

Carolyn Granier-Deferre and colleagues asked fifty pregnant women to play out loud a brief recording of a descending piano melody twice a day during the 35th, 36th and 37th weeks of their pregnancy. The music was not played for the final two weeks of the pregnancies. One month after the birth, the researchers paid each mother and infant a visit.

As the infants slept, the researchers played out loud the ‘familiar’ descending melody as well as an ‘unfamiliar’ ascending melody. On average, the heart rates of the sleeping infants dropped by 12 beats per minute when they were played the ‘familiar’ tune, but by only 6 beats per minute for the ‘unfamiliar’ tune. The researchers interpreted this finding as the infants recognising the descending melody from 6 weeks ago – when they were in the womb!

Before you start panicking at ‘what the fetus may have overheard’ during your own children’s time in the womb, consider this next study, which shows that young children are not just limited to memories of sounds.

Hungarian and Dutch researchers examined the brain responses of two-year olds to a drum beat. Toddlers were fitted with an EEG cap, which sits on their head like a shower cap full of electrodes and measures the brain’s electrical signals. The two-year olds were played a ‘standard’ rhythm, as well as a syncopated beat in which one strike of the drum was missing.

Proving that even toddlers can be jazz musicians, the researchers found that milliseconds after the missing drum beat, the babies’ brains produced a burst of electrical energy, indicating that they had expected to hear a drum strike.

Music is every child’s first language. Flickr/Liliazdad

So, not only do infants appear to remember songs played to them in the womb, they are also able to appraise certain elements of that tune.

But, what about producing music? Well, it seems that babies may be able to do this as well.

To my untrained ear, the screams of a hungry infant appear to be rather tuneless to the point of being, well, screams. Not so, according to a German research team, who found that newborns may actually be creating little symphonies.

Mampe and colleagues analyzed the ‘cry melodies’ of 30 French and 30 German babies, who were no more than 5 days old. Stunningly, they found clear differences between the two nationality groups. Whereas the French newborns preferentially produced cries with a rising melody, the German babies tended to produce a cry with a falling melody.

These patterns are exactly the same as those typically observed in the respective languages, with French words/phrases tending to rise in pitch (e.g., merci) and German words tending to fall in pitch (e.g., danke). The newborns were screaming in the sing-song pattern of their native language.

Little Mozarts

So, there you have it. Humans love music, and it seems that even the newest of newborns can be little Mozarts. While I may have difficulty convincing you that a screaming child is really serenading you in concert, there may just be more there than meets the ear.

Music is a newborn’s first language, and it remains a tongue that we speak for the rest of our lives.

Would a celebration be as joyous without a toe-tapping tune? Would a movie be as scary, as funny, as heart-breaking, if it weren’t for the background score? Would a car-ride be as quick, a gym session as vigorous, a house-cleaning as tolerable, if we didn’t have an accompanying soundtrack?

I doubt it.

…'til next time, I’ll keep bopping along to Meatloaf.

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