Friday, March 04, 2011

Can infants recognize melodies heard in the womb?

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 (cf. Parncutt, 2009).

ResearchBlogging.orgGranier-Deferre, C., Bassereau, S., Ribeiro, A., Jacquet, A., & DeCasper, A. (2011). A Melodic Contour Repeatedly Experienced by Human Near-Term Fetuses Elicits a Profound Cardiac Reaction One Month after Birth PLoS ONE, 6 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017304

ResearchBlogging.orgParncutt, R. (2009). Prenatal development and the phylogeny and ontogeny of musical behaviour. In S. Hallam, I. Cross, & M. Thaut (Eds.), Oxford handbook of music psychology (pp. 219-228). Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  1. Optional question:
    would you expect the same results if the control and experimental melody were exchanged? Would it matter? Could not familiarity but the descending structure have caused the effect? Any intuitions?

  2. Gerry Altmann wrote on Facebook (Saturday at 10:09): "I find it slightly sad that we've collectively forgotten earlier work (also by de Casper) that essentially showed the exact same thing. I'm all for replication, and I'm all for popularisation of science, but I would much rather give credit where, and when, it's due."

  3. A. J. DeCasper and I have been working on, and following the litterature on prenatal auditory perception and learning for 30 years. To our knowledge there is not one study published in a peer reviewed journal that has directly shown:
    1) a fetal memory of a melodic contour per se, and 2) that this memory can last 6 weeks.
    Could Gerry Altmann post the references of the papers he is referring to ? Thank you,
    C. Granier-Deferre and A.J. DeCasper

  4. To answer the first question posted on the blog :
    - the descending contour alone, without any prenatal exposure, cannot explain our results. Look at the data of the control groups that were never exposed to either of the stimuli, the heart rate responses to the descending and to the ascending melodies do not differ and are twice smaller than the heart rate response of the group that had 3 weeks prenatal exposure to the descending melody. If you do not want to go through all of the statistics, look at the graph, it speaks for itself.
    - classically, a brief heart rate deceleration to a sound stimulus can be interpreted as either an attentional or an orienting response.
    C. Granier-Deferre and A.DeCasper

  5. Hello. I'm currently researching the similar topic of music influence on human perception and mind in general, but my focus is on choral music or generally speaking human voice singing melodies. I do not know where to look for information on this topic and which resources are available, including those in the web. I'd greatly appreciate any kind of reference information or guidance. Thanks.