The Musical Infant: Studies Show Infants are "Musical"
A Few Notes On Pitch
Recent Publications of Special Interest
How are infants as music listeners? How well do they use musical concepts to organize their musical experience? For many years, the capabilities of infants have been ignored, or have been studied only with respect to issues dealing with language. However, in recent years, systematic programs of research have undertaken to elucidate the origins of musical capabilities at the earliest stages of human development.
Musical abilities can be determined in such young, pre-verbal children by careful observation of their behavior by a trained experimentor. An infant sits on its mother's lap. To the left and right of the infant are two loudspeakers and next to each speaker is a transparent plastic box which is ordinarily dark. When the infant turns its head toward a loudspeaker, it can be rewarded by illumination of the adjacent box within which an animated toy is activated. During testing, the experimenter attracts the infant's attention by manipulating puppets or other objects. A background musical stimulus (as simple as a single note or more complicated, such as a melody) is played repeatedly from one loudspeaker.
At random times, the experimenter pushes a hidden button that instructs a computer to either continue the same stimulus or present a slightly different stimulus. If the infant notices the change from background to the new stimulus, it will turn toward the speaker and be rewarded with the sight of the animated toy. Restlessness and random head movements can be ruled out by showing that there are few or no head turns when there is no change compared to head turns for stimulus changes. The first question is whether infants can actually hear the difference between two adjacent notes, that is can they discriminate differences as small as one semitone, the smallest interval used in Western musical compositions. The answer is yes; in one study, five month old infants were found to be able to discriminate differences in frequency that were much less than the differences between two adjacent notes in the musical scale, so they have the basic sensory capability to perceive adjacent pitches (1).
What about the perception of melody? Adults perceive melody not by remembering the exact pitches but rather by remembering the relationships between notes. For example, we instantly recognize melodies as the same regardless of whether they are played by instruments that differ in pitch, or are played by the same instrument in a different key. Melodies are characterized by the exact intervals between pitches but even here, adults also pay attention to the pattern of increases and decreases of pitch, the so-called "contour" of a melody. Sandra Trehub and her colleagues at the University of Toronto, Missisauga, Ontario, Canada have studied the perception of melodies as part of a systematic program of research on the musical capabilities of infants. They have found that indeed infants 8-11 months of age do perceive and remember melodic contour. If the direction of pitch changes in a melody is altered by as little as one note, such as a decrease in a note instead of the usual increase, then infants turn toward the loudspeaker when this new melodic contour is played. These findings show that infants use the adult-like listening strategy of attending to global pitch relationships rather than the detailed notes themselves (2).
Rhythm and tempo are basic building blocks of music. Adults organize sound sequences by grouping them into discrete phrases. Grouping is known to be a way to enhance auditory memory, as when we try to remember lengthy telephone numbers. Composers appreciate memory limitations by writing music in phrases. Professor Trehub's laboratory has found that infants, like adults, also mentally segment sequences of sound into "chunks"(3). Adults also recognize the same melody independent how rapidly or slowly it is played. To determine if infants 7-9 months of age also recognize melodies independent of tempo, they were presented the same melodies at different rates. Infants did not respond to a change in tempo of the same melody, thus showing the same listening strategy as adults. Change in rhythm are easily detected by adults. To study infants' processing of rhythm, the same notes were played in various rhythmic combinations, e.g., 2,1 (XX-X) contrasted with 1,2 (X-XX). Changes of rhythm from the background rhythm were instantly detected (4).
In summary, infants have surprising adult-like capabilities in the way that they perceive and attend to musical stimuli. We reviewed here some of the findings on melody, tempo and rhythm. The results of further studies on early human musical capabilities will be the subject of future reports. But for the present, it is clear that there is a rich field of inquiry about music and infancy, that infants do possess the capabilities of perceiving and mentally organizing music and therefore "The Musical Infant" not only exists but it is the normal human infant.
(1) Olsho, L.W. Infant frequency discrimination. Infant Behavior & Development., 1984, 7, 27-35.
(2) Trehub, S.E., Bull, D. & Thorpe, L.A. Infants' perception of melodies: The role of melodic contour. Child Development, 1984, 55, 821-830.
(3) Thorpe, L.A.l & Trehub, S.E. Duration illusion and auditory grouping in infancy. Developmental Psychology, 1989, 25, 122-127.
(4) Trehub, S.E. and Thorpe, L.A. Infants' perception of rhythm:
Categorization of auditory sequencies by temporal structure. Canadian
Journal of Psychology, 1989, 43, 217-229.
This article summarizes the results of behavioral and neurobiological studies in animals and humans concerning pitch. The findings support the conclusion that pitch, a fundamental building block of music, has a strong biological basis. Before we discuss these findings, some background information will prove helpful.
Pitch is the psychological perception that is elicited when a note is sounded on a musical instrument or sung. Like all other perceptions, pitch is actually "constructed" by the brain rather than given directly to the mind. When a note is sounded, e.g., middle A on a piano, a complex set of oscillations of air is transmitted to the ear, the frequencies of which consist of the lowest frequency ("fundamental" in this case 440 Hertz) and related higher frequencies ("harmonics", e.g., 880, 1320, 1760, 2200 Hz, etc.). The auditory receptors in the inner ear (cochlea) break down musical and other complex sounds into their component frequencies which are then forwarded separately into the auditory system. The brain constructs the perception of pitch from this frequency information. This can be demonstrated by experimentally deleting the fundamental frequency while keeping the harmonics. When this is done, we still perceive the missing fundamental frequency! It seems when the auditory system is given a harmonic series, the brain computes the frequency that would give rise to this series and then produces the "correct" perception. So the brain somehow combines information about individual frequencies to construct pitch perception.
If pitch perception is a basic biological property of brains, then it should be found in animals as well as in humans. Indeed, animals do perceive pitch. When animals are trained using the same harmonic stimuli that give rise to pitch in humans, they show behaviorally that they do perceive the missing fundamental frequency. This has been demonstrated in birds, cats and monkeys (1). Further research with animals also suggests that the brain constructs pitch at the highest level of the auditory system, the auditory cortex. Should the auditory cortex be malfunctioning, as in the case of a stroke, then animals no longer perceive pitch but can only react to individual pure tone frequencies (2).This type of animal research has important implications for understanding how neurological problems in humans affect their perceptions. For example, a subsequent study has shown that damage to the auditory cortex in the right hemisphere of humans severely impairs the perception of pitch (3).
Recent findings in normal humans also implicate the auditory cortex in the perception of pitch. But first, back to some basics. Auditory researchers have extensively studied how the brain processes individual acoustic frequencies (pure tones) . A basic finding is that the brain maintains a consistent frequency organization in the auditory system (a "frequency map"), in which neighboring cells are tuned to adjacent frequencies, much like adjacent keys on a piano. This frequency map is well known in animals. Is this map also found in the human brain? The answer is yes. The responses of the human brain have been detected by a device positioned near the head that detects minute changes in magnetic fields when brain cells are excited by a sound. When different pure tone frequencies are presented, adjacent parts of the auditory cortex respond to adjacent frequencies (4).
But is this a map of frequency or of pitch? The use of pure tones cannot decide this issue. Rather, it is necessary to use harmonic series in which the fundamental frequency is missing. In an important series of studies, researchers presented three types of stimuli: a complex stimulus consisting the 4th through 7th harmonics of a fundamental of 250 Hz, a pure tone of 250 Hz and a pure tone of 1000 Hz (5). They found that the locus of response to the harmonic series was at the same point as the locus for responses to the fundamental frequency of 250 Hz. However, the locus for responses to 1000 Hz was at a different site. The authors concluded that the frequency map of the human auditory cortex is actually a map of pitch. This map of pitch in the human was confirmed by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to be in the primary auditory cortex (6). A recent study in monkeys failed to find any single cortical cell that responded to pitch. However, this doesn't mean that the cortex is not involved in pitch but only that the combined activity of many cells may be required to give rise to the perception of pitch (7).
In summary, observations from both animals and humans indicate that the auditory cortex is involved in the construction of pitch from raw frequency information. Moreover, the data from humans suggests the existence of a map of pitch in the auditory cortex. Although additional studies are needed, the findings to date strongly support the view that a basic building block of music is an important feature of brain organization.
(1) Chung, D. Y., & Colavita, F. B. (1976). Periodicity pitch perception and its upper frequency limit in cats. Perception and Psychophysics, 20, 433-437.
Cynx, J., & Shapiro, M. (1986). Perception of missing fundamental by a species of songbird (sturnus vulgaris). Journal Comparative Psychology, 100, 356-360.
Heffner, H. E., & Whitfield, I. C. (1976). Perception of the missing fundamental by cats. Journal Acoustical Society America, 59, 915-919.
Schwarz, D. W., & Tomlinson, R. W. (1990). Spectral response patterns of auditory cortex neurons to harmonic complex tones in alert monkey (Macaca mulatta). Journal Neurophysiology, 64(1), 282-298.
(2) Whitfield, I. C. (1980). Auditory cortex and the pitch of complex tones. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 67(2), 644-647.
(3) Zatorre, R. J. (1988). Pitch perception of complex tones and human temporal-lobe function. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 84, 566-572.
(4) Arlinger, S., Elberling, C., Bak, C., Kofoed, B., Lebech, J., & Saermark, K. (1982). Cortical magnetic fields evoked by frequency glides of a continuous tone. EEG & Clinical Neurophysiology, 54, 642-653.
Hari, R., & Makela, J. P. (1986). Neuromagnetic responses to frequency modulation of a continuous tone. Acta Otolaryngol. Suppl, 432, 26-32.
Romani, G. L., Williamson, S. J., Kaufman, L., & Brenner, D. (1982). Tonotopic organization of the human auditory cortex. Science, 216, 1339-1340.
Yamamoto, T., Uemura, T., & Llinas, R. (1992). Tonotopic organization of human auditory cortex revealed by multi-channel SQUID system. Acta Otolaryngol, 112, 201-204.
(5) Pantev, C., Hoke, M., Lutkenhoner, B., & Lehnertz, K. (1989). Tonotopic organization of the auditory cortex: pitch versus frequency representation. Science, 246(4929), 486-488.
Pantev, C., Hoke, M., Lutkenhoner, B., & Lehnertz, K. (1991). Neuromagnetic evidence of functional organization of the auditory cortex in humans. Acta Otolaryngol Suppl., 491, 106-115.
(6) Pantev, C., Hoke, M., Lutkenhoner, B., & Lehnertz, K. (1991). Neuromagnetic evidence of functional organization of the auditory cortex in humans. Acta Otolaryngol Suppl., 491, 106-115.
(7) Schwarz, D. W., & Tomlinson, R. W. (1990). Spectral response
patterns of auditory cortex neurons to harmonic complex tones
in alert monkey (Macaca mulatta). Journal Neurophysiology,
64(1), 282-298. Schwarz and Tomlinson (1990),
Music: Cultural Add-On or Biological Imperative ?
The following opinions about music are based on the reports of
scientific studies. This does not mean that the opinions carry
the same importance as the results of such studies, themselves.
They are simply opinions, intended to provoke thought and sometimes
perhaps even argument, but ultimately to energize and enlarge
thought and action on music.
Does music come from culture or from biology? This is part of the enduring "nature vs. nurture" question about human behavior. People seem to have chosen up sides on this issue forever and perhaps they will continue to do so. But phrasing the question this way already presupposes a certain type of answer, specifically that behavior is governed by one or the other, but not both. A better way to address this issue is "To what extent is music behavior influenced by biological vs. environmental processes?". This is better because the amount of influence can vary from none to all, allowing biology and culture to each contribute something.
Traditionally, music has been viewed as the product of culture
and social interactions. This seems reasonable and perhaps even
obvious. After all, people seek music as entertainment (consider
the great sales of tapes and CDs alone) and while entertainment
is nice, it certainly isn't necessary for life. Although an occasional
musical genius is born (W.A. Mozart, for example), this is too
rare an event to support the conclusion that music in general,
in most people, has anything to do with biological causes.
This common sense conclusion about music is not very convincing for at least two reasons. First, it confuses cause and effect. That is, the fact that music often has the effect of entertaining does not mean that its cause(s) are only cultural, not at all biological. For example, dining out in a restaurant is entertaining and is not essential, but that doesn't mean that the need for food is cultural rather than biological. This raises the question of what needs music might fulfill, and we will consider this in a subsequent issue.
The second reason why the common sense conception of music is
not compelling is that it assumes that a biological basis for
music implies that the full blown skills of composition and performance
must be manifest, as for Mozart. Aside from the facts that Mozart
did practice and did study composition, albeit starting at a very
early age, it is possible that all children have the capabilities
of appreciating music and of expressing themselves musically at
a very early age. Given the correct supportive environment, they
could develop these musical abilities, to a greater degree than
Thus, the common sense conception does not rule out a biological
basis for music behavior. But is there any evidence that supports
some role for biology? This is an extremely complex matter because
culture itself can be considered to be of biological derivation.
Humans are social animals by nature. Our brains have specializations
for social behavior, including a specific substrate for recognizing
individual faces. So in one sense, music, even if originating
from social conditions, has a biological basis. But the question
addressed here is whether there is a more direct link between
music and biology. A broad scan of the scientific literature suggests
a positive answer.
First, behaviors that are closely to biology should be universal,
that is there should occur across the world, across different
cultures. Music satisfies this criterion. The fields of anthropology
and ethnomusicology attest to the extremely widespread presence
and use of music. Although the uses of music may vary across
current and past cultures, it is omni-present.
Second, biologically-based behaviors might be revealed early in
life before cultural factors achieve a strong influence. The
fields of developmental psychology and cognitive sciences have
discovered that preschool children spontaneously exhibit music
behaviors, using music in their play and communication. Moreover,
recent studies have revealed that musical capabilities are found
in human infants, neonates and perhaps even in the prenatal stage
(see "The Musical Infant", this issue).
Third,, if music has a strong biological component, then fundamental
building blocks of music might be present in animals and this
seems to be the case. For example, monkeys and other animals can
form musical abstractions, such as determining the fundamental
frequency of a harmonic series in which only the higher harmonics
are presented (see "A Few Notes on Pitch", in this issue).
Fourth, the human brain might be expected to have a discernable
organization that is intimately involved in things musical. There
is the well known "division of labor" between the
left "language" hemisphere and the right "music"
hemisphere. Another intriguing finding is that the highest level
of the human auditory system, called the auditory cortex, is organized
not to process raw sound frequencies but rather to process a psychological
abstraction that is a foundational musical element -- pitch.
These examples from different fields of science provide evidence
that music has deep biological roots, from the organization of
the brain. If music is a biological imperative, then its importance
in human life is considerably greater than is commonly thought.
As research in music expands, we can expect the findings to greatly
enlarge our understanding of the roles of music in human development
and behavior, and perhaps to provide new insights into our
The Musical Foetus?
At what age do musical capabilities first appear? Perhaps at birth
or even soon after the functional development of the auditory
system in utero. Peter G. Hepper, reporting in the Irish
Journal of Pscyhology (1991, 12, pp 95-107), studied neonates
2-4 days of age who had been exposed to the theme tune of a popular
TV program while their mothers were pregnant. When the same tune
was presented after birth, the neonates exhibited changes in heartrate
and movements. More remarkably, fetuses of 29-37 weeks gestational
age also showed specific behavioral responses to tunes played
earlier in pregnancy. In both experiments, behavioral responses
were specific to the tune to which they had been exposed. These
results would seem to indicate that the learning and remembering
of a melody can occur not only before birth but actually before
or at the beginning of the third trimester.
Mozart and Spatial Reasoning
Recently, the first report of a causal relationship between music
and abstract reasoning was published. It supports the view that
listening to music can improve the ability to perform complex
tasks of spatial reasoning. Frances Rauscher, Gordon Shaw and
Katherine Ky (Nature, 1993, 365, p. 611) gave college students
standard tests of spatial reasoning after they had experienced
each of three conditions for 10 minutes: listening to Mozart (sonata
for two pianos in D major, K488), listening to a relaxation tape
or silence. Performance was significantly better after listening
to Mozart than for the other two conditions. The authors selected
Mozart because they believe that its musical structure facilitates
cognitive processing in the brain and predict that music which
lacks sufficient complexity or is too repetitive would interfer
with abstract reasoning. It will be interesting to see the results
of further studies that determine which aspects of the enhancing
treatment are critical and also if non-musical stimulation can
Children and Education
Kratus, J. A developmental study of children's interpretation of emotion in music. Psychology of Music, 1993, v21 (n1):3-19.
Lamb, S.J.; Gregory, A.H. The relationship between music and reading in beginning readers. Educational Psychology, 1993, v13 (n1):19-27.
Lynch MP; Eilers RE. A study of perceptual development for musical tuning. Perception and Psychophysics, 1992 Dec, 52(6):599-608.
McLaughlin, T. F.; Helm, J. L. Use of contingent music to increase academic performance of middle-school students. Psychological Reports, 1993 Apr, v72 (n2):658.
Wolfe, D.E. & Hom, C. Use of melodies as structural prompts
for learning and retention of sequential verbal information by
preschool students. Journal of Music Therapy, 1993 Summer, v30
Music Perception and Cognition
Boltz, M.G. The generation of temporal and melodic expectancies during musical listening. Perception and Psychophysics, 1993 Jun, 53(6):585-600.
Iverson, P.; Krumhansl CL. Isolating the dynamic attributes of musical timbre. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 1993 Nov, 94(5):2595-603.
VanderArk, SD and Ely, D. Cortisol, biochemical, and galvanic
skin responses to music stimuli of different preference values
by college students in biology and music. Perceptual and Motor
Skills, 1993 Aug, 77(1):227-34.
Polk, M and Kertesz, A. Music and language in degenerative disease of the brain. Brain and Cognition, 1993 May, 22(1):98-117.
Sergent J. Music, the brain and Ravel. Trends in Neurosciences, 1993 May, 16(5):168-72.
Abstract: Understanding the functional organization of the cerebral
structures underlying receptive and expressive musical processes
is confronted with a wide variety of difficulties inherent in
the artistic and subjective nature of the musical experience.
Yet clarifying the relationships between music and the brain
is a legitimate goal of neuroscientific research. One approach
toward this goal is based on new developments of brain imaging
techniques, and recent investigations indicate that the realization
of musical abilities such as sight-reading and piano performance
relies on a distributed neural network comprising locally specialized
cortical areas. Another approach is concerned with the study of
musicians, like Maurice Ravel, who have been affected by brain
damage. An analysis of their deficits helps to uncover some properties
of music-brain relationships, to identify the essential questions
raised by these deficits, and to clarify the neurofunctional anatomy
of musical abilities. The understanding of the neurocognitive
bases of musical functions is still at an early stage, but recent
progress in cognitive and neurofunctional research opens the way
to more systematic studies than had so far been possible.
Sergent J; Zuck E; Terriah S; MacDonald B. Distributed neural
network underlying musical sight-reading and keyboard performance.
Science, 1992 Jul 3, 257(5066):106-9.
Abstract: Music, like other forms of expression, requires specific
skills for its production, and the organization and representation
of these skills in the human brain are not well understood.
With the use of positron emission tomography and magnetic resonance
imaging, the functional neuroanatomy of musical sight-reading
and keyboard performance was studied in ten professional pianists.
Reading musical notations and translating these notations into
movement patterns on a keyboard resulted in activation of cortical
areas distinct from, but adjacent to, those underlying similar
verbal operations. These findings help explain why brain damage
in musicians may or may not affect both verbal and musical functions
depending on the size and location of the damaged area.
Zatorre RJ; Halpern AR. Effect of unilateral temporal-lobe
excision on perception and imagery of songs. Neuropsychologia,
1993 Mar, 31(3):221-32.
Schorr JA. Music and pattern change in chronic pain. Ans. Advances in Nursing Science, 1993 Jun, 15(4):27-36.
Abstract: The purpose of this study was to investigate the use
of music as a means of altering the perception of chronic
pain among women with rheumatoid arthritis. In this repeated measures
investigation, 30 women diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis for
a minimum of 6 months, responded to the McGill Pain Questionnaire
prior to listening to music of their choice, during music, and
1 to 2 hours after completing the intervention. The results of
this study support the use of music as an intervention.
Lord TR; Garner JE. Effects of music on Alzheimer patients. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1993 Apr, 76(2):451-5.
Abstract: From a large nursing care facility, 60 elderly patients
diagnosed as having Alzheimer disease were randomly separated
into three groups of equal size and given tests to measure their
mood and mental state. For music Group 1, "Big Band"
music from the 1920s and 1930s was played during their daily recreation
period while Group 2 were given puzzle exercises during their
activity sessions. Members of Group 3 participated in the standard
recreational activities of drawing and painting. After six months,
the questionnaire was again given to all participants. Analysis
of variance showed the individuals in Group 1 were more alert,
happier, and had higher recall of past personal history than patients
in the other two groups. This suggests that music can be of therapeutic
value to Alzheimer patients.
->      MuSICA Home Page      Cumulative Article Index      Subject Index      Next Issue