Last week PloS One published an interesting finding that shows that one month old infants can recognize a melody that they heard about three weeks before they were born.
Developmental psychobiologist Carolyn Granier-Deferre (Paris Descartes University, France) and her colleagues asked fifty women to play a brief recording of a descending piano melody (one that gets lower in pitch) twice daily in the 35th, 36th and 37th weeks of their pregnancy. When the infants were one month old, both the descending melody and an ascending melody were played to the babies in the laboratory (while they slept; see notation below).
On average, the heart rates of the sleeping babies briefly slowed by about twelve beats a minute with the familiar descending melody (right), and by only five or six beats with the unfamiliar ascending melody (left). A result that was interpreted as the infants paying more attention to the familiar than the unfamiliar melody.
We know for a while that newborns can discriminate or perceive most of the acoustic properties of speech. The prevailing theoretical view is that these capacities are mostly independent of previous auditory experience and that newborns have an innate bias or skill for perceiving speech.
By contrast, these results show (as the authors stress in a press release) that merely exposing a human fetus’ developing auditory system to complex stimuli (read ‘music’) can affect how it functions.
Next to role of mere exposure one should add that this result is equally convincing evidence for a newborn’s capacity of perceiving and recalling music (see my earlier ‘language bias’ entry). In that sense this study adds to the growing literature that shows that infants in the womb are sensitive to, and can memorize both melody and rhythm. These findings play an important role in a further understanding of a potential biological and evolutionary role of music (see, e.g., Parncutt, 2009).