Infants and the musical beat

If you are living in a big family, or you just adore children, you might have noticed some of these phenomena:

• Infants pay attention to the music on TV.

• Everybody talk to infants like a Soprano Opera Singer, in a high pitch and with exaggerated expressions.

• Infants attentively react to these types of communication and look very interested

• If the infant senses aggression in the tone, they might start to cry. Some may even respond with a disapproving outcry.

• If held close to the sound of music or that of somebody singing, the infant starts to actually ‘dance’!

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Parents might have noticed and experienced all of these reactions and assumed that their child was very talented and smart. This is correct in some ways and wrong in others: the ability to communicate and respond to the environment shows that the infant is probably healthy and possesses an appropriate level of comprehension and understanding. But the assumption that the infant, who reacts and dances to the music, has talent in music is a myth. Why? The answer is as follows.

In the mother’s womb, in addition to the chemicals and food from her body, a foetus receives stimuli from the outside environment. The physical stimuli that the infant receives are movement and sound. They feel the movement, and move themselves, and they ‘hear’ voices from inside and outside of the mother’s body— the heartbeat and the mother’s voice from inside (due to the vibrations of her speech within her body), and environmental sounds and other people’s voices from the outside world. Sound is an infant’s only non-chemical connection to the outside world. Vision and tactile senses appear after birth. Therefore, infants show significant reactions to sound: they move their head to find the source of sound; they react to their mother’s voice and every sudden sound. The auditory sense is normally more sensitive in infants than adults and they can hear a wider range of frequencies. Although this ability decays as they become older.

Infants react to music. Some types of music can make them cry and with some they start to move and enjoy themselves. What is the process? Has the infant actually learned to dance during 9-10 months or a year or is it because they receive social rewards and encouragement when dancing to music?

Indeed, to move to music is a human instinct. Although social rewards and encouragement do have influence on an infants’ reaction to the beat of music, it is not the primary reason for them to move and tap to the beat. A study* which investigated this phenomenon can be summarised as follows:

Infants between 5 to 24 months and from two different nationalities were chosen to take part in an experiment along with their parents. The infants were sat on their parent’s laps to avoid separation anxiety and also for them to move the detectable parts of their body (e.g. hands, upper body) so the researchers would be able to track the infant’s movements accurately. The parents were wearing headphones so that they were prevented from hearing the music and avoid any possible unconscious tapping and moving to the music. The infants were exposed to excerpts of classical music, children’s music, rhythmic patterns and also two types of speech: normal adult speech and infant-directed speech.

The results showed that infants detect the beat in music and move to the regular beat of the music. Although the complexity of rhythmic changes and also the speed can influence their reactions, they do it without any help or actual learning. In addition, it was suggested that the infants’ attention and reaction to music was higher than that to mere speech (even their own parents’ speech). Indeed, the infants dancing to the beat is related to a human’s innate ability of entrainment, in which we ‘sync’ our movements with others. To understand this ability, imagine being at a rock concert; is it only the music forcing you to move or is it also the flow of the crowd? You can detect entrainment in rituals as well. If you have taken part in the Shiite Moharram ritual, you will have noticed that people, tapping on their heart, is a form of entrainment, it is formed by the beat and the synchronisation is extraordinary. This example can also be seen in Kurdish ritual dances, in which very large crowds dance around a circle, people are in sync with the music and most importantly with each other, and this is rooted in the instinctive synchronisation with the environment, they have never been taught how to do this.

* Zentner, M., & Eerola, T. (2010). Rhythmic engagement with music in infancy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(13), 5768-5773.

This article is originally published on Underline Magazine

What do we think of music education?

To this day, music education is not a mandatory part of the educational curricula in schools around the world. However, it differs from one country to another; it has a more active role in the European education system where children can ‘choose’ to learn and play music if they wish to. Music professionals and teachers around the world are trying to justify the necessity of including music lessons in school programs, like other mandatory fields such as geography, mathematics, literature and history. This might seem merely in favour of musicians. But even if it is, it is based on scientific studies and educational demands. Considering the advent of technology in recent years, there has been a massive breakthrough in studying and analysing human’s brain and the mechanisms of limbic and cognitive systems. Psychological studies with the help of recent discoveries have investigated and demonstrated the importance and benefits of music and music learning in cognitive and emotional development.

Learning and playing music is not a one-dimensional activity for the body and mind and it does not solely happen in auditory organs and brain parts. Music is a multi-dimensional process for body and mind in all the aspects of listening, learning and playing. During musical processes different parts of the brain and body are involved,  such as limbic, sensory and emotional parts and organs. Engaged in learning and playing music, the visual and limbic organs and different brain parts work alongside the auditory organs.

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The subject of music-related processes of body and mind goes further from the present discussion. This article explores people’s and parents’ expectations and views on their children’s music education. What happens if music is included as a mandatory lesson in schools, what should parents expect as the result of this type of education?

In recent years in Iran, extra-curricular music lessons have been greeted and welcomed by upper and middle class parents. Parents consider music learning as a valued activity, they seek teachers and music institutes and spend on musical instruments and consequently expect to ‘see’ results and achievements. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with parents expecting results from their investment on their children. The unrealistic view is to expect all children to become ‘professional musicians’ after attending music lessons: to be able to perform and play popular and well-known songs. This expectation often is far from reality.

To clarify the problem here, I have to bring some examples: children learn mathematics at school for years, is it the case that all parents expect their children to become mathematicians? Or a historian as a result of studying history, or an author as a result of studying literature? The answer is probably no. Learning mathematics, history, literature, arts and other fields has a very different objective: to achieve the necessary abilities and knowledge (or at least the important ones) to survive and communicate and live in the world. And to be informed about one’s own and others’ culture. Even in the long run, children will choose different jobs and professions, sometimes irrelevant to their childhood talents and education. It is definitely not the case that every talented child in mathematics ‘will’ become a mathematician!

It is the case about music as well; the goal of music lessons (once a week for an hour!) is ‘not’ to become a professional musician. Music education in the first place should be considered as an educational tool for improving motor and mental skills and nurturing children with culture and arts. To perform music cannot be the ultimate goal for learning music, and children with different backgrounds, abilities and potentials should not be expected to fulfil the unrealistic goal of becoming a perfect performer. Finally music as an ancient and evolutionary phenomenon cannot be reduced to just another form of performing art.

Nowadays in Iran parents evaluate the quality of their children’s music lessons and learning based on their musical performances. This is when this quality can be evaluated with ways other than mere performance abilities. The improvement of children’s mental and motor skills, their ability to sync their movements in playing, being focused, attentive and accurate, as well as memory improvement could be some of the results which parents can look for. These musical skills are somehow similar to the skills one can obtain from sports—synced mental and physical actions and reactions. In music learning and playing children learn to sync their visual and auditory processes consciously and attentively. They learn harmony and synchronisation and anticipation of the resulted sound. Last but not least, music is a human and cultural phenomenon, which transcends culture and promotes cooperation. During the process of learning and playing music, children learn to cooperate, empathise and synchronise themselves with others. They learn to express their feelings through a non-verbal medium and to understand other feelings in the same way. Music can be effective in children’s creativity as well as narrative abilities. It might be better if we—especially parents—reconsider the music learning’s ‘how’ and ‘why’. We should realise that music is far more than playing an instrument, it is about evolution and survival, and it is an effective tool to improve and develop our children’s perception and cognition, and to teach them tolerance and empathy.

Originally published on Underline Magazine:
Underline Magazine, British Council