Beatriz Ilari, and Linda Polka. “Music cognition in early infancy: infants’ preferences and long-term memory for Ravel”. International Journal of Music Education 24. 1 (2006).
In this study, Ilari and Polka challenge the belief that infants are passive listeners with limited perceptual and cognitive skills for music. This assumption can be seen in the types of music found on musical recordings for babies, toys and videos such as Baby Einstein. The music is typically simple, with clear distinctions between melody and accompaniment, basic I-V-I harmonies and predictable forms. The music on infant-directed CDs is mostly limited to short and simple pieces from the Baroque and Classical periods (such as Bach Minuets) and are highly repetitive. These resources influence parents, who continue to play simplistic music to their young children.
Previous research used the Headturn Preference Procedure (HPP) to determine that infants prefer high-pitched singing over low-pitched singing. Similarly, two studies have found that babies generally prefer the piano over other timbres which was shown in heart deceleration levels when listening to piano music.
Based on what was already known about infants’ listening preferences and abilities, Ilari and Polka studied infants under the age of 8 months and their responses to and long-term memory for two pieces from Maurice Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin. The pieces chosen for the study were the Prelude and the Forlane. Subjects were played both pieces, with half of the babies listening to the solo piano version while the other half listened to the orchestral version. This part of the study used HPP to determine the babies’ preference for either the Prelude or the Forlane. They found that infants listening to the orchestral version preferred the Prelude over the Forlane, while the infants in the piano group did not present a reliable preference.
Part 2 of the study was designed to test infant memory for complex music. Infants were again split into two groups; one group listened to the piano version of the Prelude for ten consecutive days while the other group listened to the piano version of the Forlane. Following a 14-day period where the infants did not listen to any Ravel, the researchers brought the babies back into the lab where they played both pieces to see if the babies showed recognition for their designated piece. The results were clear and conclusive: babies listened significantly longer to the familiar piece than the unfamiliar piece.
This study challenges the current practice of exposing infants to overly simplistic music such as lullabies, folk melodies and repetitive music from the Baroque and Classical periods. It also raises further question of what aspect of music is being stored by infant brains. What part of a particular piece of music serves as a trigger for later recognition?
I found this study incredibly illuminating. I, too, am guilty of underestimating the cognitive abilities of babies in terms of music listening. I volunteer in the nursery at my church, where we have a collection of “baby CDs”. I find them difficult to listen to because they often feature Mozart sonatas or symphonies played on synthesized instruments such as xylophones and celestas. After reading this study, I will now bring music that is stimulating to babies as well as enjoyable for me.
The findings of this study also challenged the way I think about the important first lessons with a new beginner. In beginning piano, we also focus on teaching folk melodies because they are likely to be familiar to children. While the physical abilities of children limits teachers to teaching these simple songs, I now believe that we should supplement lessons with “music acculturation” CDs. That is, collections of more complex music, perhaps in simple timbres such as the piano, that stimulate children’s listening by challenging them to hear beyond basic four-bar phrases and simple harmonies.
My hope is that the findings of this and other related research will begin to change the music listening options that are currently available to parents of newborns. While it would also be more enjoyable listening for the parents, I wonder if early exposure to complex music will affect the music learning styles and abilities of children at a later age.