We are musical beings. From the beginning, we are designed to make music. It’s in the rhythm of our movement, of our breathing. If we listen carefully, we can hear music in a baby’s cooing, in her babbling. This music reassures us that our child is content. He’s happy with the world around him. The reality is that this aural connection, the music in the sounds we hear while in the womb preprogram us to make specific music in our first cries. Some of the initial external programing for our growing brains comes from the rhythms, highs, and lows of the speech sounds outside of our little natal apartment. Researchers have discovered that babies in different countries cry in different “accents”. Those accents closely match the cadences (think rhythm, rise, and fall of an area’s speech patterns). Check out a portion of Annie Murphy Paul’s TED Talk – What we learn before we’re born:
Annie Murphy Paul and the “accents” of infants’ cries.
Crying as Language: Language as Music
Murphy is most likely referring to studies conducted by Kathleen Wermke of the Center for Prespeech Development and Developmental Disorders at the University of Wurzburg in Germany. Wermke found that this accented crying occurred as early as the first days of ex-utero life. The music of the mother’s voice helps to provide a foundation for the maternal bond long before birth. While this crying is not technically a language, it certainly has linguistic qualities – flow, intonation, varied volume. And it’s precisely those aspects that, in turn, have musical qualities – melodic shape, repeating patterns, and tempo.
So What of Actual Music?
The womb is actually an incredibly noisy locale. Lots of musical sounds besides speech make their way to the developing ear. It’s like a street level apartment in New York City. You have the ever present heartbeat of the mother, the whooshing of blood pumping, the gurgling of food digesting, and the sounds of the lungs constantly inflating and deflating. Can actual music get through this biological big band and have an effect on a baby in-utero? Annie Murphy Paul thinks so.
Simple is Best
I need to disclose that I am a classically trained musician – and I love classical music. But as it turns out, it’s likely that the complexity of this music is lost while competing with the “street noise” of the womb. In her interview with New York Magazine, Dr. Deborah Campbell, the Director of Neonatology at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore, reminds us that infants have the capacity to recognize simple melodies experienced while displacing mom’s bladder. Think folk music. And guess what? As it turns out (here’s where we tie a bow on all this), folk music is often based on the pace, rhythm, and melody of a region’s speech patterns!
So…if you put the headphones on your tummy, or sing to your partner’s navel, stick to the classics, time-tested folk music. Kindermusik uses a great deal of this music in our classes, and while there are many reasons this category of music is so effective with new humans, its ability to be internalized quickly and repeated easily is certainly connected to its special relationship with the language of origin.
Next time you hear your baby cry, hear the music. She’s singing to you in your language.