Human Journey

The Emotional Baby: How Infants Respond To Music

Have you seen the “emotional baby” video yet? At last count, 25 million people had viewed this YouTube clip of an infant smiling tearfully while her mother sings a bittersweet Rod Stewart ballad. While that’s only anecdotal evidence of music’s power, science also suggests that music taps into something deep inside the human brain even before we can talk.

To learn more about how babies respond to music, we interviewed Dr. Laurel Trainor, director of McMaster University’s Institute for Music and the Mind in Hamilton, Ontario. 

Can a baby really sense the emotions in a song?

In that video, we can’t be sure whether the infant was responding to the emotional content of the singing, the facial expressions of the mother, or to some other stimuli. It’s difficult to answer the question of whether infants truly understand the particular emotions in music. But we do know that young infants prefer certain types of musical sounds and vocalizations.

What kind of vocalizations? And how do you figure that when your study subjects can’t talk yet?

Preferences can be measured by letting an infant use the rate at which they suck on something to control which of two voices he or she gets to listen to. Such studies suggest that infants prefer happy voices over angry voices.

Infants also prefer what is called “infant-directed” singing. Around the world, caregivers sing to infants in a way that differs from most other kinds of singing—usually in a conversational style, with a lot of repetition, high in pitch, slow in tempo, and in a loving tone of voice. Infants prefer this over other styles of singing.

Do babies seem to have any innate musical preferences?

Yes, there appear to be some innate preferences or sensitivities. For example, when two musical tones are played together, infants prefer “consonant” combinations over “dissonant” ones, very similarly to adults.

What do you mean by dissonant tones?  

Musical tones typically have both a fundamental frequency—what we perceive as pitch—and harmonics, which are multiples of that base frequency. When the harmonics across two or more tones are close, but not identical, in frequency, it causes interference patterns which give rise to a sensation of beating or roughness. This is called dissonance. The ear is very mature at birth, so it’s not surprising that young infants are sensitive to this.

What other specific elements of music do babies respond to?

Infants can discriminate tempo. More impressively, they can recognize the same piece of music played at different tempos. And infants are very good pitch processors. They notice when the pitch contour (up/down pattern) of a melody is changed. They also notice when a wrong note is played.

Before 12 months of age, infants do not appear to have a sense of key. Adults who have grown up exposed to Western music find it much easier to detect a wrong note in a piece of music if it goes outside the notes of the melody’s key. This indicates that even musically untrained adults have implicit knowledge about what notes belong in a key. But young infants do not—they can detect wrong notes, but do equally well with notes that remain in the key or go outside it. In fact, in some cases infants are better than adults at detecting wrong notes that remain in the key.

Speaking of key, some people think that songs in a minor key sound sadder than those in a major key. Is that something that infants notice?

We know that infants can discriminate major from minor chords, but we don’t know exactly when they begin to associate major keys with happy, and minor keys with sad.

Also, that association depends on what you’re used to. Musical systems differ, just as languages differ, and the structure of scales, keys, and harmony in your native musical system is largely learned through passive exposure, like language. Music in major keys is much more common in Western tonality, and music in minor keys does tend to sound more sad to Western listeners. However, in some musical systems, the minor scale is the most common, and can sound happy to listeners who are accustomed to it.

Speaking of cultural differences, when do these develop? Are Western babies born preferring Western music?

No, young infants are sensitive to a diversity of music. A process of “perceptual narrowing” appears to take place during the infant’s first year. Western music tends to use very simple meters, such as in a march, in which every second beat is accented. However, many cultures use more complex meters, for example, accenting every fifth or every 7th note. Young Western infants are able to detect changes in both simple and complex meters. But by 12 months, Western infants are only able to do so for the simple meters found in Western music.

Is there any truth to the idea that listening to classical music is good for babies’ brain development? And along the same lines, does exposure to music in the womb have any effect?

There is no evidence that listening to classical music has any more benefit that listening to many other types of music. But whatever sensory experience infants have affects their brain development, and music is no exception. There are studies indicating that infants remember sounds experienced during the last couple of months before birth, although the hearing environment in the womb is very different—more like hearing under water.

Have you ever encountered a baby that doesn’t like any kind of music at all?

No, but of course that doesn’t meant that there isn’t one out there!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

I'm an associate editor at NGM, where I write and edit stories for both our print and digital editions.
  • Ajmal gillani

    Yes it is very suding,in this part of the world,our mother have been using this sing method since 100,s of years,it’s not new to us.

  • Marie Jones

    My first baby would start to pucker up and shed tears every time I would hum the melody of “Greensleeves,” which has been made into a Christmas song now called “What Child is This.” That is the only song he responded that way to.

  • Amit Tzur

    I’m sure the baby did not cry as the song goes .. Apparently his mother’s facial expressions

  • CO

    Our oldest son has been extremely sensitive to music since birth. He would cry at even ting tones on cell phones that sounded melancholy. I couldn’t play any music that sounded even a little sad when he was a baby or he’d cry, and especially not in the car. I couldn’t sing twinkle little star to him and he’d cry..he’s very emotional and sensitive as well as empathetic. Our second son has sensory integration issues with touch and textures but lsounds as well. We are almost convinced that there is a family inheritance that may contribute. My mother’s family on both sides has strong musical talents and they come from the Musikwinkel(music corner) area of Germany where many famous musical artists of history hail from, I don’t want to use our family names for privacy purposes, but both were musical instrument makers and players (still are) and even brought this to America through the generations. My grandfather was extremely talented in playing string instruments. I’ve done a lot of reading and research on musical traits and am finding it may actually be a strong inherited trait. Both of our older sons are also above average iq. I think that musical abilities may be linked to this, possibly, but there are many other talents that are and could be, as well in many other children. I think that giving them the ability to nurture their talents musically or otherwise is a positive way to help their growth intellectually, in any case. Also, sensitive children are indeed special and have a true gift.appreciate that quality.

  • Rebecca M Nick

    My five months old baby cries when I listen to Augustin Hadelich playing the violin. One morning I was listening to Augustin playing Dvorak, he was 4 months then while I was holding my baby and I just saw his tears streaming from his eyes I didn’t know what to think of it. Then I try it again after a month and listen to Augustin HAdelich playing sarasate zigeunerweisen and he cries, not the wailing cry but a very very emotional cry, this time I was able to record him. I can honestly say that he only cries to classical music but not to nursery rhymes or other songs that I used to play in the car.
    Here is his video:

  • Jordan

    My 4 month old did this amazing emotional cry today to a vocal version of rachmaninov’s Vocalise- he does not do it to any violin rendition, just vocal. My husband and I are both opera singers and have 2 other children that are gifted (one PG). I’d love to hear from the 2 commenters at the top as I am so intrigued by this! My other sons do have some Sensory processing issues as well and wonder if there is a correlation…?

  • Laira

    My 2 months baby just starts to cry to some specific piano music. We just accidentally figured out today ! Ot is so interesting why is that happening. Does that mean he is sensitive and emotional?

  • Ezekiel

    My baby girl is one year old and just recently started crying when I play or sing “twinkle twinkle little star” at first I thought the video was scaring her but her response was the same no matter how it was played.

  • Sergio Monteiro

    My 2 months old seems to get relaxed only with Extreme Metal, I’ve tried Classical, Pop and local and end up crying even more, Death Metal will calm him down to sleep .

  • Lara Pienaar

    My daughter would cry for a very specific song when she was an infant. We discovered it by accident. Only that song would make her bawl her little eyes out. To this day she can’t listen to it. 10 000 miles by Mary Chapin Carpenter.

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