ICMPC Day One – Symposium on Infant Development

There were three papers in this symposium, which focused on the effects of musical experience on musical development during infancy. They were nicely organised to include one paper on newborns, one on 6-12 month olds, and finally one on toddlers.  Glenn Schellenberg provided discussion at the end.

1) Henkjan Honing presented a study which investigated whether beat induction is a fundamental cognitive mechanism contributing to musicality and the origins of music. In order to answer this question his research group sought to determine if newborn babies (2 days) can induce the beat in music. If newborns notice a change to a beat then the assumption is that we are born with the ability to induce the beat in the first place. And if we are born with this ability then it must be an important feature of our musical evolution.

His method was EEG and specifically he looked for evidence of an Event Related Potential known as the MMN.  This is an early negativity that occurs when there is a change in an auditory stimulus. First he showed that newborns MMNs are atypical – the difference is still there but it is slightly positive.  But once he had established what a newborn MMN looked like, he measured EEG responses to different drum beats. He found that newborns did notice when a downbeat was absent, as evidenced by a newborn MMN, suggesting that they can detect rhythmic regularities in music. He finished by pointing out that while learning later in life is clearly still important, the presence of beat induction in newborns supports the idea that this skill is fundamental to the evolution of music.

2)  Judy Plantinga then presented a study she did with Sandra Trehub looking at preferential looking in infants to consonant and dissonant sounds. They tried to use more ecologically valid stimuli than has been used in the past (simple melodies) since it is more common in reality for us to hear dissonance in harmony. They wanted to know if infants as young as 6 and 12 months have a preference for looking towards consonant or dissonant sounds.  They made the important point that even if they found an effect, this doesn’t mean that the babies actually prefer either sound; only that it holds their attention for longer.

They conducted three different studies using different types of music. In simple melodies they showed no effect of dissonance for either age group. In chords the 12 month olds looked for longer at the dissonant stimuli, but the 6 month olds had no preference. In extremely dissonant harmonies they again found no effects. Overall therefore there seemed to be no evidence for attentional bias to dissonance in babies.

3) Laurel Trainor then presented a final study looked at whether musical training was possible in infancy. Studies have previously shown positive effects of music lessons but never in very young children. Laurel’s group focused on Suzuki training for their experimental condition and listening to ‘Baby Einstein’ CDs while playing for their control. They took many outcome measures including home behaviour (parent report), tonality development, brain development (EEG to MMN again), attention, gesture, and social/emotional development.

After 6 months of participation in one of these two weekly classes the results were as follows. The Suzuki group showed more development of tonality, a faster MMN latency to pitch changes, earlier development of communicative gestures, less crying and fussing at home, and increased curiosity with their approach to new objects. Also more smiling and laughter 🙂 They concluded that babies can benefit from active musical training at a young age, but noted the likely importance of active parental involvement in the classes (which is likely to also affect their measures as well since a lot of them were parental report).

In discussion Glenn praised the ingenuity of the studies and the interesting findings. He also noted a few thoughts or questions for future work.

1)      Can we really consider the newborn MMN as measuring the same thing as the adult MMN, given their different EEG signature?

2)      An appreciation of dissonance is also a factor of cultural evolution, an example being our changing attitude to the level of dissonance heard in a perfect 4th.

3)      He wondered whether babies are likely to look for longer at sounds they do not prefer, a point which triggered lively discussion!

4)      He suggested that very young babies probably are probably only encoding contour in melodies which might be why changes in interval that created dissonance seemed to not be having a large effect.

5)      He revived concerns regarding the use of parental reports for changes in children behaviour. He also pointed out that the Suzuki lessons were likely to be more of a positive experience for the parents, which could have knock on effects for parent-child interactions at home. Also he pointed out that Suzuki classes were likely to have far more structure than a listening to music while playing class.  Laurel agreed with all these points and also indicated her interest in conducting future studies that investigate the role of “attention training” – suggesting that music was a unique ‘internally motivating’ stimuli for this kind of training in babies.

A fascinating session showing the evolution of this field is on the move! Great to see use of EEG in quantifying development effects, and the interest in children at all stages of development.