Musicality from Birth to Five

Musicality from Birth to Five
Donald A. Hodges
Institute for Music Research
University of Texas at San Antonio

Imagine trying to quiet a colicky baby without rocking or singing a lullaby. Or, imagine a television show such as Sesame Street without any music. Musical experiences are inextricably woven into the very fabric of infancy and childhood. The purpose of this brief article is to provide an overview of the role of music in early childhood.

Early Brain Development

About 100,000 nerve cells per minute are sprouting in the unborn baby’s brain (Begley, 1991) and eventually, the adult brain will hold nearly 100 billion neurons (Shatz, 1992). With very minor exceptions, we do not add brain cells as we grow older; in fact, we lose them throughout the aging process. What is most important, then, is not so much how many brain cells one has but the number of interconnections among brain cells. Children raised in an impoverished sensory environment create fewer neuronal connections, while those raised in a rich sensory environment make many more. If we were to look at the brain of a child who had been stimulated with many different sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes, we would see a dense thicket of neuronal interconnections. Early childhood musical experiences in the form of lullabies, musical crib mobiles, and most especially, musical interactions where the baby is an active participant, can aid in the development of the neural networks necessary for later music processing (Olsho, 1984; Trehub, Bull, and Thorpe, 1984).

A different way to look at this issue is to look at data indicating that early musical experiences leave their imprint on the adult brain. There are growing indications that those who study music, particularly beginning at an early age, show neurological differences when compared to those who have not had much training. Adult musicians have stronger and faster brain responses to musical tasks (Faita and Besson,1994) and certain parts of their brains, related to music processing, are larger or more responsive (Elbert et al., 1995; Flohr, Persellin, & Miller, 1996; Pantev et al., 1998; Pascual-Leone et al., 1995; Petsche, 1992; Petsche et al., 1985; 1988, 1993; Schlaug et al., 1994, 1995; Williamson and Kaufman, 1988). All of this research strongly suggests that early musical experiences imprint themselves on the brain as do all learning experiences that have the potential for changing brain organization. Whether or not these changes have implications for other domains of learning continues to be investigated. But it is certain that early musical experiences involving active participation allow for enhanced musical experiences later in life.

Fetal and Infant Responses to Music

There is abundance evidence showing that the human fetus is aware of and responsive to sounds, including music ( Lecanuet, 1996). Moments after birth a baby may turn in the direction of a voice, searching for the source. By the end of the first week, babies can select their mother’s voice from among a group of female voices. Babies move their arms and legs in synchrony with the speech of caretakers. Five-month-old infants can discriminate differences in frequency less than one half step (Olsho 1984) and by the age of 8-11 months, they rely on melodic contour to make pitch discriminations (Trehub et al. 1984).

A significant amount of the interactions between a newborn and its caretakers is based on two-way sound manipulations. The caretakers sing lullabies and talk “baby talk” and there are musical crib mobiles and toys. “Motherese speech,” a term psychologists have coined to refer to the type of baby talk typically spoken to infants, emphasizes pitch, timbre, dynamic inflections, and rhythm patterns in order to convey meaning. Clearly, the baby cannot interpret the meaning of words, but does learn to interpret the emotional content. Likewise, the baby learns early on to communicate by manipulating these same sonic elements to express mood states such as hunger, pain, fear, happiness, love, and so on. From this line of research, it is clear that infant musical behaviors are exhibited primarily because of inherited mechanisms. While learning takes place from the outset, babies do not need systematic, formal instruction in order to respond to music, speech, and other sounds.

Musical Development to Age Five

The following is presented as the merest outline of musical development. (For more detail see Andress, 1986; Davidson, McKernon, & Gardner, 1981; Dowling, 1999; Gembris, 2002; Gembris & Davidson, 2002; Imberty, 1996; McDonald & Simons, 1989; H. Papousek, 1996; M. Papousek, 1996; Pouthas, 1996; Simons, 1986).

Pre-natal: While more and more is being learned about fetal reactions to sound and music, less is known about the impact of these experiences on later musical development.

Birth to 1: Newborns 1 to 5 days old have demonstrated an ability to discriminate differences in frequency. The onset of cooing and purposeful vocal sounds is 15-16 weeks. Five-month old babies have shown a sensitivity to melodic contour and rhythmic changes. Six-month old babies have been successful in matching specific pitches. During the first year of life, most babies are alert and responsive to musical stimuli; through babbling and cooing they engage in considerable melodic and intonational experimentation.

1-1.5: Activation to music through rocking, marching, rolling, and attending intently are more pronounced. Experimentation with pitch variations continues; movement between tones is by glissando, not discrete pitches.

1.5-2.5: The glissando technique for sliding between ambiguous pitches changes into a capacity for producing discrete pitches. The child begins systematic drill of intervals in fragments, including seconds, minor thirds, and major thirds, gradually expanding to include fourths and fifths. This is a period of spontaneous song, that is, improvised song fragments consisting of the selected intervals being practiced. These songs are not clearly organized and contain little tonality or regularity of rhythms.

2.5-3: Spontaneous songs gradually give over to a recognition and imitation of folk tunes in the environment, such as the ABC song, Old MacDonald, and Twinkle, Twinkle. Often these take the form of multiple repetitions of learned fragments and/or variations. During the next period, the child must accommodate to the limitations of culturally-approved songs. By the end of the third year a rhythmic structure is learned.

3-4: By now the child is capable of reproducing an entire song in terms of the overall contour. However, accurate pitch representation, as opposed to contour, is not always possible.

5: An underlying pulse is extracted from surface rhythm so that a child is able to keep a steady beat. The child is now able to sing an entire song in the same key without modulating, with an increasing awareness of a set of pitches instead of just contour.

During the next five years most children increasingly acquire a stable, internal pitch framework. Critical to musical development in the earliest years is the home environment. Opportunities, not just to hear music, but to interact in musical games and activities is critical to emotional and psychological development (Dissanayake, 2000; Gembris & Davidson, 2002). Moreover, it is becoming increasingly apparent that all human beings are biologically predisposed to be musical and that this inborn predisposition for musicality has important consequences for us not only artistically, but emotionally and socially, as well (Hodges, 2000; Imberty, 2000; Trehub, 2000).



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Don Hodges is Professor of Music and Director of the Institute for Music Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is has published widely in music education and music psychology and is currently engaged in a series of brain imaging studies of musicians.