Infants Can Tell Happy Music From Sad

Study illustrates the rapid development of the human brain

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga

Updated on March 13, 2009

THURSDAY, Oct. 16, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Babies as young as five months old can distinguish between upbeat and gloomy music, providing more evidence that the brain's ability to detect emotion develops early, researchers report.

"They can tell emotions apart," said study author Ross Flom, an associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah. "They don't understand that this is happy music and this is sad music, but they know they're different."

Scientists already knew that babies can distinguish between elements of music like pitch and tempo, Flom said, but until now, no one had studied if they could also notice the difference between types of emotion.

While the babies in the study were too young to talk, they did have the ability to express interest in the outside world and become bored. So, the study authors latched onto this trait to figure out how they perceived music.

The researchers recruited 96 babies and played various types of music for them, Flom said.

Some of the music was upbeat, including the theme from the "Peanuts" TV shows, the fourth movement from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 ("Ode to Joy") and the jazz piece "Tiger Rag," performed by the New Orleans group Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Other selections tended toward the sad side, including the second movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

The babies would repeatedly listen to three selections from one category of music -- happy or sad -- and then the researchers would play a selection from the other category. The researchers gauged whether the babies perked up and noticed a difference in the music by paying more attention to a video of a neutral-looking male or female human face in front of them.

Most 5-month-old babies showed signs that they could discriminate between types of music when a happy selection followed a sad selection, but not the other way around, Flom said.

"At nine months, they can tell individual happy pieces and sad pieces apart," he said. "It shows the remarkable cognitive skills that these kids have. They've mastered a lot in nine months -- 270 days."

The findings, expected to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Infant Behavior & Development, are "just another way of documenting that babies are very attuned very early in development to emotion," Flom said. "It helps them to learn communication and helps promote early language skills."

But, Flom added, the study says nothing about the value of music as a tool to help babies become smarter.

Paul Sanberg, director of the University of South Florida College of Medicine's Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair, said the study authors have come up with a unique way to gauge what babies can perceive.

"If they [babies] have no language, you can't ask them," Sanberg said. "It's kind of like doing an animal experiment: You're trying to interpret what the subject is feeling or doing through nonverbal responses."

Flom said the next step in the research is to study whether babies can detect aggression -- or non-aggression -- in dogs.

"You and I don't require much training to know whether we should approach a dog and scratch it on the chin or back away pretty quickly," he said.

More information

Learn more about the brain's development from the University of Washington.

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