by Julia Priest, M.S., M.Mus.
Parents often ask music and movement teachers whether class is
beneficial for their newborns and young infants. Some parents express
their plan to wait “until s/he can really get something out of it.”
What can we tell them to support our intuitive conviction that their
children should come to class early and often?
This article reports on three current studies that should help early
childhood music and movement specialists speak with evidence-based
clarity about the music perception and learning abilities of fetuses,
newborns, and, by extension, young infants. For the sake of simplicity,
we will honor the scientific convention of calling a human being before
birth a fetus, reserving the terms infant and baby
for the neo-natal period. The studies described in this article were
designed to be more convincing than some of their predecessors by virtue
of being prospective (the researchers carried out the experiment on
people instead of asking people to reconstruct and narrate past events
from memory), randomized (substantially similar subjects were randomly
assigned to the control or experimental groups, or else a single subject
experienced the control stimulus and the research stimulus in random
order), and double-blind (there was a sham stimulus; also, the
statisticians did not know which data they were analyzing).
Al-Qahtani, N. H (2005). Foetal response to voice and music. Australian
Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 45, 414-417.
The womb is relatively quiet, so the mother’s voice and other nearby
sounds emerge clearly from the background noise of maternal digestion,
heartbeat, and so on. Dr. Al-Qahtani reminds us that scientists were
observing fetal response to external sounds as early as the 1920’s.
However, measuring the responses is always confounded by the fact that
fetuses move unpredictably and even their heart rates vary
unpredictably. Statisticians have developed a panoply of arithmetical
tests to separate out spontaneous variations in the data from variations
that are likely to be in response to the research stimuli.
Ten women, whose pregnancies were 37 to 40 weeks advanced,
participated in the study. Dr. Al-Qahtani played both instrumental
music and vocal sounds for each fetus. For the instrumental example,
she chose Spanish guitar music because it comprised a wide range of
frequencies and dynamics. The vocal stimulus was a female voice
reciting nursery rhymes. A tape recorder playing silence provided the
As a baseline, each fetus was observed and measured for 10 minutes
while in the quietest state of sleep, as evidenced by still eyes and
body and a characteristic heart rate pattern. Then a single earphone,
placed against the mother's belly, played a 15-second stimulus which was
randomly chosen: music, voice, or silence. Nine such stimuli (three
music, three voice, and three silence) were played in random order, with
3.5-minute silent intervals between every stimulus.
When all the data were collected and analyzed, it turned out that
fetal movements and heart rates during the sham noises did not differ
significantly from the random fetal events during baseline or silent
times. However, during both spoken voice and guitar music, fetal heart
rates accelerated, on average, to a degree that would be very hard to
explain by chance. There were no measurable differences between
responses to music and responses to speech.
One potential problem with this study was that, to avoid causing
maternal anxiety, the mothers did not have earplugs nor did they listen
to alternate music. We know that fetuses do react to their mothers’
emotions; so, in this case, it is possible that the mothers somehow
transmitted information about each stimulus from their nervous system to
Interestingly, Dr. Qahtani reports that similar studies have found
decelerations instead of accelerations of heart rate. She posits that
different kinds of musical stimuli may explain contradictory findings.
For scientists, studying music can be mysterious because it is such a
complex stimulus. It can vary, as we know, by pitch, volume, duration,
timbre, tempo, and so many other dimensions. For musicians and music
teachers, the same mystery presents a world of opportunity—to soothe
people or to energize them, or to communicate subtle and deep emotions.
Fetuses show incipient responses to the complexity of music. They are
so attuned to vocal quality and other characteristics of speech that
they can discriminate, in utero, between a stranger’s voice and
that of their own mother. If fetuses are so sensitive to timbre, then
how much more so must newborn babies be?
Kisilevsky, B.S., Hains, S.M.J., Jacquet, A.-Y., Granier-Deferre,
C., and Lecanuet,
J.P. (2004). Maturation of fetal responses to music. Developmental
Science, 7, 5, 550-559.
Specialists in our field often hear mothers assert, “I listened to
Baby Mozart throughout my pregnancy,” with a satisfied or defensive
tone, as if insisting that they took their prenatal vitamins and never
touched wine. The idea that music magically, effortlessly benefits
development is widespread, but the support for it is “mostly anecdotal
and is perhaps reinforced by a plethora of commercial audio-recordings
(e.g. music, heart sounds) and devices purported to enrich the fetal
environment and increase infant IQ.” On the other hand, it is clear from
prior research that external music is indeed heard clearly enough to be
recognizable in utero; that the auditory system is substantially
working after 33 weeks gestational age; and that immediately before
birth, babies can detect certain gross auditory differences such as
male/female voices, familiar/unfamiliar voices, and low/high piano
Two research teams, one in Canada and one in Paris, collaborated on
the following study. They chose Brahms’ Lullaby because its
tempo is known to be soothing. The lullaby was presented to the fetuses
in a five-minute, recorded piano arrangement. The authors attempted to
separate out mothers’ responses from fetal responses by masking the
mother’s hearing with earphones playing dissimilar music (either country
or guitar music).
While the lullaby recording was played to the fetuses, the
researchers measured fetal heart rate and body movements. They were
particularly interested in the thirty seconds before and after the music
started, and again in the thirty seconds before and after the music
When the researchers analyzed their data, they separated the fetuses
(N=114) into groups by gestational age (GA). The first group was
between 28 and 32 weeks GA when studied, which means that their auditory
systems were not fully developed. Another group of fetuses were 33-34
weeks GA, the age at which, previous research has suggested, the
auditory system is fully developed. A third group was at 35-36 weeks GA
when they participated in this study. The last group was labeled term
fetuses because, at 37 weeks or more GA, they would no longer be
considered premature had they been born.
When the music was turned on, all fetus age groups showed changes of
heart rate. Statistical testing strongly suggested that these changes
could not have occurred by chance. In the youngest fetuses, heart rates
generally accelerated at the onset of music if it was played loudly;
this was thought to indicate arousal. If the same music was played more
softly, heart rates generally decelerated at the onset of music, which
was thought to indicate attention. The deceleration effect became more
common in the older fetuses. The term fetuses showed heart rate
deceleration no matter how loud or soft the music was played. In other
words, the most mature fetuses may have been paying some primitive form
of attention to the music.
The Paris team threw an additional variable into the mix: they played
the lullaby twice for each fetus. For half the fetuses, the
researchers played the lullaby first at an ordinary tempo, 69 beats per
minute, and then again at a faster tempo, 118 beats per minute. The
other half of the group heard the fast version before the a tempo
version. During the course of listening to the five-minute recording,
term fetuses showed an increase in heart rate to the faster tempo, but
no change with the normal-tempo music.
Understanding this study depends on getting comfortable with the
technical terms “arousal” and “attention.” The youngest fetuses may
have been excited or even alarmed by the onset of music in their
environment. The more mature fetuses, because they may have been able
pay some primitive form of attention to the music, could also respond
differentially to faster and slower tempo. If tempo and timbre are both
salient features of music for fetuses, we are forced to speculate how
many other features of music might they also differentiate with some
degree of clarity, such as pitch, melodic contour, or even rhythmic
pattern. We will also want to know whether they will remember, as
newborns, the music they heard while in utero.
James, D.K., Spencer, C.J., and Stepsis, B.W. (2002). Fetal learning:
randomized controlled study. Ultrasound Obstetrics and Gynecology
The researchers chose a three-minute track of “Little Brown Jug” by
Glenn Miller because, they said, it has a “wide range of tone and is
rhythmical.” Twenty pregnant women were studied 92 hours prior to their
elective date of delivery. Each pregnant woman wore headphones on her
abdomen for five consecutive hours. None of the women had been exposed
previously to the Glenn Miller track during pregnancy, so their fetuses
had formed no associations, whether positive or negative, with it. For
one initial silent hour, researchers took a baseline recording of all
the fetuses’ heart rate and movements. Thereafter, the experimental
group was differentiated from the control group by having a continuously
looped recording of the Glenn Miller track played through the
headphones to the fetuses. Meanwhile, mothers in the control group
continued to wear silent headphones on their bellies. The sham stimulus
was used to keep the mothers unaware of whether they were in the
experimental group or the control group, making this study nearly a
double-blind study, which is the most powerful design for an experiment.
For the fetuses in the experimental condition, music was played
through the headphones on their mothers’ bellies the entire time.
During the first and fourth hours of this period, fetal heart rate and
movements were recorded for all fetuses, both control and experimental
The striking finding from this study that early childhood teachers
might want to share with parents is that, during the fourth hour of
hearing music, fetuses who heard music showed significant differences in
their heart rate and movements compared to fetuses in the control
group. They showed more state transitions (awake to asleep, etc.) and
spent more time awake.
Three to five days after birth, all babies were studied again in a
quiet room, thirty minutes after feeding. The babies’ heart rates were
measured through special neonatal electrodes attached to an
electrocardiogram machine. A trained observer took notes of the
infants’ body, limb, and eye movements. In this neonatal situation,
thirty minutes of “baseline” (no music) were followed by an hour of
“Little Brown Jug” looped music, played through a headphone two to three
feet from the baby’s head. All of the newborns, including those in the
control group, now heard this music. All the neonates showed
significant differences in their heart rate and movements while hearing
the music compared to the silent condition. They showed more state
transitions (awake to asleep, etc.) and spent more time awake.
There were, however, also marked differences between those babies who
had heard four hours of music in utero and those who had not.
The music group changed sleep-wake state more efficiently and spent
more time awake than the non-music group.
The limitations of this study include the fact that mothers in the
experimental group may have become aware of the music vibrating on their
abdomens, and their knowledge or feelings about this may have had an
effect on fetal behavior. Another problem is that fetuses and babies
change spontaneously and unpredictably: even the control group exhibited
significant changes during their time of listening to silence.
The authors believe their study demonstrates that fetal exposure to
music results in the development of altered behavior in the fetus before
birth and in the newborn, and consider this to be evidence of a kind of
learning, albeit the most primitive kind. Music and movement
specialists should feel more comfortable in assuring parents that their
babies’ remarkable capabilities include some ability to learn music.
In conclusion, we can tell parents that fetuses not only hear music
in utero, but also seem to be able to tell the difference between
music and other rhythmic noises such as the mother’s heartbeat, seem to
give music some form of attention, and seem to form some kind of
primitive memory traces of the music they hear. Rather than asking
whether their baby is old enough to benefit from music class, perhaps
parents should be asking us whether to start music class when their
fetus is at 33-weeks gestational age, or wait until 37 weeks, three
weeks prior to the estimated due date. The scientific evidence so far
tends toward supporting Kodály’s contention that music education begins
“nine months before the birth of the mother.”
It is worth noting that the body of research on prenatal cognitive
abilities is small. The sense of hearing, being the fetus’s most
developed sense, is naturally the easiest to study and provides a
natural opportunity for scientists to investigate ways that thinking
develops in the unborn human.
Julia Priest is director and teacher of Music &
Movement of Newton, a music program offering Music Together® classes for
children birth to Kindergarten. She has been a singer and teacher
since 1987 and holds certifications in Music Together and