Friday, December 14, 2012

Musicality in Children

Topical Reference:
 "Music and Your Child" by TVO (Full Episode available on YouTube)

This made for television panel interview features Wayne Strongman, Lorell Trainor and Lee Bartel. They discuss a variety of topics on music during child development, beginning with music and general measures of intelligence.

Trainor mentions that a very minor 3- or 4-point increase in I.Q. is seen in children who take formal music lessons. Physical and motor representations are developed in relation to an instrument that is being learned. Interestingly, children who take formal music lessons also show advanced cognitive skills in the domains of concentration and attention. Bartel adds that research shows attentional rehabilitation is more effective when using music in comparison to any other rehabilitation technique for adolescents who have traumatic brain injuries, which seems consistent with the facts mentioned by Trainor.

The so-called, "Mozart Effect" is then elucidated. Products that offer the promise of intelligence to infants through music listening are dismissed as gimmicks, since music listening and lessons affects intelligence very minutely. While stimulation through mobiles, music, etc. is known to be enjoyable to infants; the effects of music on intelligence are rather insignificant.

Strongman emphasizes that community and sheer enjoyment should be underscored as music's primary value, not how it can access other academic subjects, such as mathematics. This brings up sociological topics, beginning with the social and emotional function of music in the rites and rituals of society. Music seems to be embedding within these rituals cross-culturally. For example, funerals, weddings, parties and other collective gatherings that involve the coming together of a social group often involve music. The idea that music can make many people "feel something together" attests to how music facilitates social unification and bonding in human groups. This relates to how teenage social groups define and unify themselves using music preference, which shows that music not only plays a role in structuring social groups but also affects us at level of individual identity and self-expression.

The conversation then moves from the sociological to the social-psychological. The panel brings up the idea that music seems to communicate meanings that are difficult to codify with language. Bartel quotes that music may communicate that which is "too specific for words." That said, he adds the caveat that music does not need to be thought of as a language itself but instead "can communicate what we can't find the words for." Children communicate in sounds before they communicate using words, further indicating their inherent musicality.

Sadly, mothers of today anecdotally seem to sing less and know fewer songs when communicating with their infants than in the past. Further, as access to recordings increase, singing could be replaced even further. A mother holding her infant and singing involve the child moving, smelling, touching, etc. This vast array of associative experience enhances the impact of musical experience at young ages as well as deepens the mother-child bond.

The panel then talked about more practical issues, beginning with the question, how young should a child be when beginning music lessons? The consensus is infancy. Bartel explains that music consists of manipulable elements such as timbre, volume, pitch, etc. These can all be learned through making sounds, singing and bopping mallets onto instruments. Other practical concerns in education such as specialist culture, informal musical experience and the public school system are discussed with a special focus on how schools can become more inclusive and humane. The politics of keeping music alive in public schooling was tied to the need for inclusiveness and humaneness.


I described Trainor's statement about a possible decrease in singing among mothers towards their children as sad. This issue is somewhat personal to me since my mother sings to children all the time. She is a jovial and extroverted individual who works in childcare and sings to the toddlers and infants she is responsible for during their snack time. The songs are generally improvised, highly repetitive, quick in tempo, sung in Hindi and seem to be rather silly. They often involve a mix of baby talk and gibberish. Despite their ridiculous nature, the children cry out, "mo! mo!" once she is finished, similarly to how they ask for more chocolate pudding. The babies genuinely enjoy it and she seems to know exactly what to deliver to the fans. I found this not only incredibly entertaining but also puzzling because for some reason babies never responded to my singing voice in the same way. At first, I assumed that babies must react to female voices differently. It is known that males process female voices differently than they do male voices. One author described this stating, "men hear women's melodies." Since there is more prosody in the female voice; men seem to have more trouble understanding it due to the greater information density (Epstein, 2005; Sokhi et al., 2005). However, this is a difference observed in adults. What about the infant brain and its relationship to the adult voice? In fact, many interesting discoveries on this topic have been made.

For example, it has been shown that babies respond to their mothers' voices in the womb (Kisilevsky, 2003). At the same time, the mother's voice activates the left-hemisphere, while stranger's voices activate the right. It seems that the mother's voice seems to preferentially activate parts of the brain responsible for language learning (Beauchemin, 2010). Finally, Mehler et al. (1978) showed that young infants prefer their own mother's voices to the voices of others. These facts demonstrate that a mother's voice has an incredibly powerful effect on their child. It is for these reasons that I consider it a sad fact, if true, that mothers are singing to their children less and less.

It would appear that music has tremendous impact on children. The strong connection between music, parent and child as well as the process of musical development in children is fascinating and seems to link to many aspects of cognition and the brain together. This discussion was intriguing and certainly enlightened me on the how music the lives of children and their parents.

Beauchemin, M., Gonzalez-Frankenberger, B, Tremblay, J. , Vannasing, P., Martinez Montes, E., Belin, P., Beland, R., Francoeur, D., Carceller, A. M., Wallois, F., Lassonde, M. (2010). Mother and Stranger: An Electrophysiological Study of Voice Processing in Newborns. Cerebral Cortex, 23, 728-733.

Epstein, D. (2005). Men Hear Women's Melodies. Discover, accessed on December 3, 2012. doi:

Mehler, J., Bertoncini, J., Barriére, M. & Jassik-Grenschenfeld, D. (1978). Infant recognition of mother's voice. Perception, 7, 491-497.

Kisilevsky, B. S., Hains, S. M. J., Lee, K., Xie, X. Huang, H., Ye, H.H., Zhang, K. & Wang, Z. (2003). Effects of Experience on Fetal Voice Recognition. Psychological Science, 3, 220-224).

Sokhi, D. S. at al. (2005). Male and Female Voices Activate Distinct Regions in the Male Brain. NeuroImage, 3, 572–578.

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