Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Music Enculturation and Brain Development in Infants


     Music has been a part of humanity since the beginning of time. Music has been used in every culture to mark traditions/rites of passages, facilitate emotional healing and unify communities (especially through religion). Adults have acquired "tastes" in music through music enculturation - "a complex, multifaceted process [involving the] processing of pitch/melodic and rhythmic/metrical structures [within] musical system(s) in a culture, the understanding of esthetic and expressive norms (like timbre voice qualities), and the learning of pragmatic uses of music in different social settings" (Trainor, Marie, Gerry, Whiskin and Unrau, 2012, 129). These differences in music are expressed when it comes to genres, timbre, etc., and we are able to communicate our preferences verbally and through facial gestures. Infants seem to absorb music in a unbiased manner (due to their inability to express their preferences verbally); therefore, they must learn the musical structures in the musical systems to become "full participants" in their cultures (129). Infants learn about "music acceptability" through musical systems within their cultures through "organizing pitch spaces and using musical scales (especially with sing-a-longs, defining and applying harmonic devices relationally with rhythmic changes, employing rhythmic and metrical structures (and linking these structures with cultural dances), identifying pleasing and disturbing timbre voice qualities, presenting in performance group structures (i.e. small and large groups) and understanding cultural rules - reserving songs for certain performers, "gendered" songs, and so on (129). Past research, conducted by Hannon and her colleagues, has shown that "young Western infants (were) able to process both simple and complex metrical structures found in music around the world, but become specialized for the simple metrical structures predominant in Western music by 12 months of age (129-130). This research also showed that "young infants, contrasting to Western adults, (were) not yet sensitive to Western tonal pitch structure, processing equally well wrong notes that go outside the key of a melody and wrong notes that are consistent with the key and implied harmony of a melody" (130). Although "studies in preschool children [suggested] that music lessons accelerate musical acquisition [measured through brain imaging techniques such as electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)"], "little work has been done in the infancy period, especially within the context of connecting musical training with "accelerat(ing) enculturation to musical tonality and Western esthetic values related to musical expression" (130). However, another study suggested that "metrical specialization can be slowed by exposure to foreign musical systems around 12 months of age," and that "participation in Kindermusik classes for infants and adults can accelerate specialization for Western meters in seven-month-old infants" (130). Additionally, this study "indicated that infants showed strengthened brain responses to melodies played with a guitar and a marimba by four months of age" (130).

Music Classes, Sensitivity and Results:

     Gerry, Unrau Trainor and Trainor studied "the effects of music classes for infants and parents on enculturation to Western music" on randomly-assigned 6-month-old infants (130). The 38 infants participated in this study for 6 months in" weekly-hour (active or passive) classes" at Ontario Early Years Centers and "attended at least 75% of the sessions" - along with their parents/guardians. The classes took place at two different centers - one was in a middle-class setting, and the other was in a lower socioeconomic area. Afterwards, the infants were tested on their "sensitivity to Western tonality, esthetic preferences, brain responses and social development at the beginning of the classes (130). Sensitivity to Western tonality and esthetic preferences came unpredictably earlier than expected, resulting in these differences being measured at 12 months of age for the infants (130). A Suzuki-philosophy approach was used for infants in the active classes [i.e. teachers engaged infants and parents in movement, singing, playing percussive instruments and building a repertoire of lullabies and action songs] (130). The goals were to emphasize musical expression with infants, have them sing and play along with their parents, get them to repeat repertoire and have parents become aware of their infants' responses to music enculturation (130). Infants in the passive classes "listened to a rotation of CD's from the baby Einstein series while the teacher encouraged play and interaction at art [i.e. building blocks, stacking cups, etc.] (130). The CD's consisted of" synthesized Classical music without music expression," and parents were encouraged to take home a different CD each week for the purposes of listening and interacting with their infants (130). The structure of the passive class was determined to be equivalent to the active classes, in terms of "stimulation, motivation, and social interaction" (130). Enculturation to Western tonality was measured through head-turning of two versions of a sonatina [one in G major and one "atonal" version] (131). Esthetic enculturation to Western Classical music was measured according to assumed stylistic norms of expressive performance (Waltz in A-flat major by Chopin). Effects of musical enculturation on brain development through piano tones and speakers' voices (133) and social consequences of musical enculturation was measured through the administration of an Infant Behaviour Questionnaire [IBQ] (135). For example, sensitivity to Western tonality was clearly shown in infants after 12 months of age, but "active musical participation involving social interaction between infants, their parents, and others in the group promotes earlier enculturation to the pitch structure of music (131). Although infants showed moderate responses to esthetic enculturation to Western Classical music, there was no difference between active and passive participants (133). Active participants showed a stronger correlation than passive participants between musical training and musical enculturation on brain development  at 12 months of age (135), and these participants were considerably "less distressed to limitations and when confronted with novel stimuli," more relaxed (more smiles and laughter) and showed easier soothability (135).


     There are a number of issues which need to be addressed in order for this study to have more validity. The first issue is that there were only 38 infants who were randomly selected to be a part of the study. The study does not mention the racial or cultural backgrounds of the participants, except that they are "Western" babies. If infants are accustomed to listening to both Western and foreign musical systems, there might be an error in assessing the actual knowledge of Western musical systems for this study. Secondly, the passive participants should have had the option of listening to real-live recordings on CD's instead of synthesized music with no musical expression; I feel that the lack of musical expression skewed the results towards the active participants. Thirdly, there are different types of music classes which are emerging which do not completely follow the "Western" or the "foreign" musical systems (i.e. hip-hop/DJ courses). This study does not account for such musical systems, and the researchers would not be able to assess infants of this music enculturation effectively. 

Work Cited:

Trainor, L.J., Marie, C., Gerry, D., Whiskin, E., and Unrau, A., 2012. Becoming musically enculturated: effects of music classes for infants on brain and behaviour, Volume 1252, Issue 1, Issue: The Neuroscience and Music IV: Learning and Memory, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2012.06462.x/pdf.


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Tina Alexander said...

I think that in terms of validating the effectiveness of early music training, this study succeeded. Even with a small sample group of 38 infants, it is clear to see the difference that exposure (both actively and passively) to music had on not only social factors, but also on the acceleration of recognizable Western musical meter comprehension. In thinking about the differences between the two sample groups, I do find it interesting that one was quite involved in the expression of music, while the other listened to "synthesized Classical music without expression". Perhaps these are standard "Baby Einstein" music CD's (I wouldn't know as I have yet to listen to one...), but why would it be an "expressionless" synthesized version? Would it yield different results if the music was expressive? I feel like even elements such as dynamic contrasts in the music can be perceivable to a young developing musical ear, especially sudden changes.

I also agree with Alicia's thoughts on this. 38 is a small sample group, and to have a broader range of infants, and cultural backgrounds could also influence the results. This study also leaves out the variable of any music exposure while still in the womb, and if that early exposure changes these outcomes, or the speed at which an infant can comprehend simple conventions of Western Music.

It would also be interesting to compare these findings with similar studies in the area of language perception and development. Do infants perceive their "cultural" music in a similar way that they perceive their first spoken language/mother tongue?

It is definitely incredible to consider how music can help the young mind develop in areas at an exponentially faster rate, and that early music exposure and involvement is an important part of development.

Will Snodgrass said...

Hi Alicia,

This is an interesting study. I like the point that you make about how infants seem to perceive music in a more unbiased way than adults. Dr. Trehub's work around early childhood musical perception seems to confirm this. The question that has educational implications is at what point does the bias kick in? How much of this bias is culturally constructed, and how much is innate?


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