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Music Might Well Precede Language

Babies can influence the pitch contour of their crying

French babies cry differently than German babies. That was the conclusion of a study published at the end of 2009 in the scientific journal Current Biology. German babies were found to cry with a descending pitch; French babies, on the other hand, with an ascending pitch, descending slightly only at the end. It was a surprising observation, particularly in light of the currently accepted theory that when one cries, the pitch contour will always descend, as a physiological consequence of the rapidly decreasing pressure during the production of sound. Apparently, babies only a few days old can influence not only the dynamics, but also the pitch contour of their crying. Why would they do this?

The researchers interpreted it as the first steps in the development of language: in spoken French, the average intonation contour is ascending, while in German it is just the opposite. This, combined with the fact that human hearing is already functional during the last trimester of pregnancy, led the researchers to conclude that these babies absorbed the intonation patterns of the spoken language in their environment in the last months of pregnancy and consequently imitated it when they cried.

This observation was also surprising because until now one generally assumed that infants only develop an awareness for their mother tongue between six and eighteen months, and imitate it in their babbling. Could this indeed be unique evidence, as the researchers emphasized, that language sensitivity is already present at a very early stage? Or are other interpretations possible?

Although the facts are clear, this interpretation is a typical example of what one could call a language bias: the linguist’s understandable enthusiasm to interpret many of nature’s phenomena as linguistic. There is, however, much more to be said for the notion that these newborn babies exhibit an aptitude whose origins are found not in language but in music.

We have known for some time that babies possess a keen perceptual sensitivity for the melodic, rhythmic and dynamic aspects of speech and music: aspects that linguists are inclined to categorize under the term ‘prosody’, but which are in fact the building blocks of music. Only much later in a child’s development does he make use of this ‘musical prosody’, for instance in delineating and subsequently recognizing word boundaries. But let me emphasize that these very early indications of musical aptitude are not in essence linguistic.

See for more information: Honing, H. (2011). The illiterate listener. On music cognition, musicality and methodology. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press or