The secret of music

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Amazing thing is when the Fetus is inside the womb, surrounded by amniotic fluid, the fetus hears sounds. It hears the heartbeat of its mother, at times speeding up, at other times slowing down. And the fetus hears music, as was recently discovered by Alexandra Lamont of Keele University in the UK. She found that, a year after they are born, children recognize and prefer music they were exposed to in the womb.

The auditory system of the fetus is fully functional about twenty weeks after conception. In Lamont’s experiment, mothers played a single piece of music to their babies repeatedly during the final three months of gestation.

Of course, the babies were also hearing through the water like filtering of the amniotic fluid in the womb all of the sounds of their mothers’ daily life, including other music, conversations, and environmental noises. But one particular piece was singled out for each baby to hear on a regular basis. The singled-out pieces included classical (Mozart, Vivaldi), Top 40 (Five, Backstreet Boys), reggae and world beat (Spirits of Nature).

After birth, the mothers were not allowed to play the experimental song to their infants. Then, one year later, Lamont played babies the music that they had heard in the womb, along with another piece of music chosen to be matched for style and tempo. For example, a baby who had heard UB40’s reggae track “Many Rivers to Cross” heard that piece again, a year later, along with “Stop Loving You” by the reggae artist Freddie McGregor.

Lamont then determined which one the babies preferred. How do you know which of two stimuli a preverbal infant prefers? Most infant researchers use a technique known as the conditioned head turning procedure, developed by Robert Fantz in the 1960s, and refined by John Columbo, Anne Fernald, the late Peter Jusczyk, and their colleagues. Two loudspeakers are set up in the laboratory and the infant is placed (usually on his mother’s lap) between the speakers.

When the infant looks at one speaker, it starts to play music or some other sound, and when he looks at the other speaker, it starts to play different music or a different sound. The infant quickly learns that he can control what is playing by where he is looking; he learns, that is, that the conditions of the experiment are under his control.

The experimenters make sure that they counterbalance  the location that the different stimuli come from; that is, half the time the stimulus under study comes from one speaker and half the time it comes from the other. When Lamont did this with the infants in her study, she found that they tended to look longer at the speaker that was playing music they had heard in the womb than at the speaker playing the novel music, confirming that they preferred the music to which they had the prenatal exposure.

A control group of one-year-olds who had not heard any of the music before showed no preference, confirming that there was nothing about the music itself that caused these results. Lamont also found that, all things being equal, the young infant prefers fast, upbeat music to slow music. These findings contradict the long-standing notion of childhood amnesia that we can’t have any veridical memories before around the age of five. Many people claim to have memories from early childhood around age two and three, but it is difficult to know whether these are true memories of the original event, or rather, memory of someone telling us about the event later.

The young child’s brain is still undeveloped, functional specialization of the brain isn’t complete, and neural pathways are still in the process of being made. The child’s mind is trying to assimilate as much information as possible in as short a time as possible; there are typically large gaps in the child’s understanding, awareness, or memory for events because he hasn’t yet learned how to distinguish important events from unimportant ones, or to encode experience systematically.

Thus, the young child is a prime candidate for suggestion, and could unwittingly encode, as his own, stories that were told to him about himself. It appears that for music even prenatal experience is encoded in memory, and can be accessed in the absence of language or explicit awareness of the memory.