We know from experience that music can influence how we feel. We can play music to set a mood for dinner. Children seem to respond to music as well, some music is soothing and may help babies sleep while other music seems exciting to them. Can babies tell the difference between happy and sad music? How early can they distinguish these differences?
A research study published in the Infant Behavior and Development focused on these questions in babies ages 3-, 5-, 7-, and 9 months of age. How is it possible to even tell if babies can make these distinctions?! The researcher in the study used habituation. The basic idea is this: When you hear something new, you usually notice it. But, if it's not new or the same thing is presented several times you get bored and no longer pay attention to it. Same thing with babies. They initially become alert and might look around to see what the source is when they hear a new sound. After the same thing is presented several times they no longer care-- they become habituated to the sound. There are many variations to this scheme depending on the question and on the baby's age.
In this experiment babies of different ages were habituated to sad or happy music. The researchers did 3 experiments to understand what the babies were and weren't paying attention to and to understand whether they could really tell the music apart and under what circumstances.
The results indicated that first babies at all ages habituated to the music. But, only babies over 3 months were able to distinguish between the happy and sad music but in different ways depending on age. When the 5 month olds and 7 month olds heard sad music during habituation they paid more attention to the happy music. But, when they heard happy music during habituation they didn't seem to pay more attention to the sad music. The oldest group (9-months old) were able to notice the change in both directions (from happy to sad; sad to happy).
What does all this mean? The relationship between music and language is not well known, but this is a good step toward this understanding. Music, like language and speech, can be used to convey meaning. Babies seem to be able to pick up on differences related to tone, intonation, pitch, and tempo (all which differentiate happy and sad music). This doesn't mean they know what sad or happy is, only that they can recognize the differences in the music. But, even very young children are starting to at least be able to tell the differences associated with affect. Being able to recognize these differences may be important in learning how to learn emotion and mood which provides information beyond what is said and helps in development of effective communication.
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