A new study by Marieve Corbeil, a doctoral candidate at Université de Montréal, has confirmed something parents and caretakers have known intuitively for thousands of years: lullabies are the best way to calm an infant.
Corbeil is studying neuropsychology in Montreal and she recently published a study showing that music, even when unfamiliar, is better at calming babies than spoken language. We reached out to her for our latest installment of Ask a Scientist, and since Corbeil speaks mainly French, the interview below was conducted entirely by email. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What made you decide to explore the connection between music and calming infants?
Music is a product of culture, but it is also influenced by our biology. Studying infants offers the possibility of examining the contributions of [biology to music]. That is, [infants allow us to study] our natural responsiveness to music because they are listeners with limited musical exposure.
It’s clear that adolescents and adults use music to regulate their emotions. Mothers also use music for regulating the emotions of their infants when putting them to sleep, calming them when they cry, or interacting playfully. Although we know that mothers sing to infants, we know little about the effects of their singing.
In this study, I was interested in studying the effectiveness of singing for keeping infants calm and content.
Can you summarize the findings of your study?
Infants remained calm twice as long when listening to a children’s song, which they didn’t even know, as they did when listening to baby talk.
Infants [whose parents speak primarily French] listened to recordings of a Turkish children’s song in one of three conditions: (1) the song sung in a lively manner, (2) the words of the song spoken in a lively, infant-directed manner, (3) the words of the song spoken in a neutral, adult-directed manner.
Infants listened to the recordings in a boring environment (no toys, mother out of view) until they began to cry. Remarkably, infants listened for about nine minutes before becoming upset, more than twice as long as they did for the spoken versions. This experiment indicated that a lively, unfamiliar song in an unfamiliar language, sung by an unfamiliar person, could keep infants content for an extended period.
We obtained similar findings when we used recordings in the infants’ native language (French).
What was the most surprising or exciting thing about what you learned from this study?
Most surprising was infants’ extended engagement with the singing and how much more effective it was than speech.
We believe that the rhythmicity of the song was particularly important in maintaining infants’ interest. Singing to infants is continuous, has steady beats and many repetitions of melody and words, compared to intermittent and much-more variable baby talk. Those factors make music much more predictable and perhaps more reassuring for infants in an unfamiliar environment such as the laboratory.
When an infant is upset or shows signs of becoming upset, mothers tend to sing songs that are highly familiar to infants—songs usually sung during happy play—which would help reinstate good feelings (and they often sing the same songs over and over).
What might parents or caregivers take away from your study?
Singing is a powerful parenting tool. It does many things beyond maintaining infants’ attention and keeping them content. Parental singing is an important means of sharing feelings and intensifying the bonds between parent and infant.
Some parents worry about singing to their baby if they sing out of tune, but babies aren’t music critics. What matters to them are a familiar voices, familiar songs, smiling faces, and a loving tone of voice. Those are the features that make infants content.
Finally, live singing is much more effective than recorded singing, and face-to-face singing is best of all.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.