What Music Is Good For

Infants innately respond to lullabies.

Posted Dec 01, 2020

What is music good for?

This question was part of a conversation with perhaps the best-known classical musician of our time, Yo-Yo Ma. In a New York Times Magazine article, the famed cellist ruminated on life and the role of music. Responding to the questions, "Do you think music is fundamentally good?" and "Can we sever music from the intentions of the people using it?" Ma said that music is complex, but basically, “it brings people together ... so a marching band will energize an athletic game or bring people to war.” He adds, “But your question—is that good or bad—depends on the circumstances and individuals and timings.”

The late novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer expressed the same idea about knives. He said they could be used to cut bread or kill.

So while music may soothe the savage breast, it may not make the savage any less ruthless. Hitler had a collection of over 100 records that included German and Russian composers, some of the pieces performed by Jews. Nazis played music at home, at rallies, and at death camps.

Ma compares great music to finding the truth. It is inspiring and beautiful, but like any truth, it can be distorted and used for terrible purposes. This is what he means by it “depends upon circumstances and individuals and timings.”

Researcher Constance Bainbridge and others at the Harvard Music Lab have found that infants respond to music but respond differently to different types of music. Measured by pupil dilation, heart rate, electrodermal activity, frequency of blinking, and gaze direction, the researchers found that babies were more relaxed when listening to lullabies. This isn’t surprising to anyone who has sung to infants.

But do babies calm down because they are responding to the voice of someone in whom they find security?

To answer this, researchers played cartoon characters singing to one another. A group of 144 American infants heard melodies from around the world, many in foreign languages as diverse as Hopi and Gaelic. Their responses were the same: They relaxed even though it was neither a familiar tune nor a familiar language.

So the appeal of lullabies may well be universal. Cross-cultural studies have to be undertaken to find out whether children in other cultures respond the same way as do American infants. But the study, as designed, certainly makes a strong case for this possibility.

Relaxing to music that is melodic, that has little rhythm—as are lullabies—seems to be part of human nature, a predisposition built into our very nature. Everyone needs to be calmed now and then. Why not listen to lullabies when stress is getting to you? Why not play a lullaby when you are getting angry? Why not hum a lullaby to yourself when you want a peaceful heart?