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The Musical Lives of Infants – a route to academic study

I had always wanted to go to university but the right academic field had always eluded me. The breakthrough came for me during my first full time job as an Early Years Educator in a preschool when the manager saw my potential and asked if I would consider undertaking a Foundation Degree in Professional Studies in Early Years. I will always be grateful to my manager for pushing me in the direction I have taken, since I had not truly considered Early Years as my future academic career up until that point.

I did not have enough experience to meet the entry requirements straight away and so needed to wait a year building up my knowledge and understanding of the early years sector.

Once on the Foundation Degree course I learnt different ways of writing and presenting research findings. By the end of the two-year course, I was more effectively researching topics and sourcing information. I had learnt how to learn, and I was now aware of the wealth of knowledge available. Perhaps more importantly, however, I was developing an understanding of the theories behind everyday practice, and felt I was becoming a more effective Early Years Educator than I could have possibly predicted.

Throughout my Foundation Degree, I knew I would be back after its completion to study the final year required for a full honours degree. I therefore regularly reflected on what I had learnt and considered them as potential areas to explore for my third-year dissertation. The areas that captured my attention invariably centred on child development itself rather than, for example, issues concerning early years policy or practice. Furthermore, formal and informal observations of children’s play inspired my interest in the cognitive side of learning and development. I believe this interest, at least in part, originated from one child in particular. I was working with a three-year-old girl who had a diagnosis of autism, her actions as she devised and solved problems interested me as I felt certain they were giving me tangible insight into the inner workings of her developing mind.

My workplace, roles, and responsibilities changed on multiple occasions during my Foundation Degree studies. By the time my final year started, with a dissertation deadline looming, I was working across several Early Years settings where I planned, facilitated, lead, and evaluated various groups, crèches, and events. I was devoting a considerable proportion of my work to ‘Sign and Rhyme’ and ‘Music and Movement’ groups with children under the age of two years, and I had become fascinated by how music may influence children’s early language development.

For my dissertation, I focused on the relationship between infants’ exposure to music and their ongoing language acquisition. I questioned the role music plays in infants’ home lives and how main carers used music in everyday parenting. My supposition was that the two would be linked as I had observed an increase in speaking and baby babbling at the groups I lead when infants were engaged in musical or singing activities. 

In my literature review I read studies on how infants and newborn babies interpret sound. I was interested in infants’ sensitivity towards different sounds and the competency of their music and language processing (Vouloumanos and Werker, 2007; Brandt, Gebrian and Slevc, 2012). Concerning the former, Vouloumanos and Werker (2007) found that newborn babies sucked more on a pacifier when listening to speech than they did to listen to non-speech stimuli. They argue this indicates a bias in newborns towards listening to speech, which assists their language acquisition. Brandt et al, on the other hand, studied music’s role in early language acquisition and concluded that infants use the musical qualities of speech, such as pitch, melody, and rhythm, to assist with understanding.

I became focused on the following question: ‘which comes first - infants’ proficiency at understanding human language or their innate musicality?’ (Brandt, Gebrian and Slevc, 2012). By the end of my study I agreed with Brandt et al (2012), believing that music is central to language-learning, and newborns rely on innate musicality to organise what they hear before they can give meaning to human language.

Chomsky (2014) originally proposed the existence of a language-acquisition device: an instinctive mental capacity facilitating infants’ acquisition and production of language. Such a device gives children an understanding of the universal rules of language, including grammar and syntax. Chomsky (2014) concluded that his experiments revealed that children seem to understand the correct order of words when structuring a sentence, and also notice when adults speak in a grammatically incorrect manner around them, before reaching fluency in their language. They additionally attempt to apply grammatical rules to words when they are exceptions to the language being spoken, such as by pluralising ‘fish’ as ‘fishes’ in English (Chomsky, 2014). This language acquisition device would also explain their later observed perception of word boundaries (the beginnings and ends of words) (Christophe et al., 1994) and repeated vowels and consonants (Benavides-Varela et al., 2012). Chomsky (2014) maintains his position in the preface to the 50th anniversary edition of Aspects and considers it uncontested by any substantial argument since infants’ experience with, and exposure to, human language is insufficient for language acquisition should such a device not be present. 

However, the question explored by Brandt et al (2012) concerning whether the language-acquisition device relies on innate language prowess or musicality, remains.

Given the required resources and time, I would love to have posed that as my research question and attempted to extend knowledge and understanding on the topic. However, I needed to find a way to explore my area of interest and formulate a study I could feasibly carry out with the limited time and resources available to me. I decided to take a step back from observations on newborns and infants, regarding their interactions with sound, in what I considered to be ‘clinical’ situations and instead focus on what takes place in the home learning environment. Perani et al. (2010) conducted a more ‘clinical’ study, using MRI scans on new-borns in controlled environments to see how they react to Western music before and after alterations to the sounds were made. Results demonstrated that, within the first postnatal hours, infants’ brains have a hemispheric specialisation in processing music with predominantly the right-hemisphere being activated when it is heard.

My research focus became an investigation into the role music played in the everyday lives of infants and how main carers use music as part of their regular parenting and care giving. I conducted six semi-structured interviews with the main carers of infants aged between six and twelve months. Research questions particularly looked at the types of musical interactions that take place between carers and infants, infants’ other musical experiences, and carers’ own outlook on music, both shared with their child and individual participation and appreciation. The questions used included:

·         During the following times of day, what music do you think your baby hears? Morning – Afternoon – Evening – Mealtimes – Bedtime

·         Do you ever play music specifically for your child to listen to?

·         What are your own interests in music?

Having built up a network with families who attended the settings I worked at and the sessions I was responsible for, I found carers willing to participate in the study without difficulty. I also had full cooperation from the settings I worked at, which allowed me to use my contacts and the settings to conduct my primary research.

Due to the exploratory nature of the study, I proposed no hypothesis and was open to whichever path my research took. However, I anticipated music and song would make up a sizeable proportion of infants’ interactions with other infants, adults, and the environment, since music is pervasive in culture and song was a regular feature and topic of discussion in all the groups I was leading. Participants directed my research by introducing themes during their interviews that I had not previously contemplated. Unexpected outcomes included musical choices influenced by one mother’s band she was in, where she sang songs she needed to learn. Another mother listened to baby worship songs every morning as well as singing and hearing songs at church. However, the direction of the research was largely dictated by the interview questions I posed and my own interpretation of data – reading through transcriptions and finding overarching themes, where others may have noticed and applied significance to themes that differed.

By probing and using follow-up questions, I gained greater depth, illustration, and detail than could have been provided by a research methodology that excluded face-to-face conversations (Rubin and Rubin’s, 2012). For example, I asked one mother, who said her child danced when she heard music, if she could ‘describe the dancing and the child’s emotional responses during this time?’ this would not have been possible had I not opted to interview.

With the data collected and analysed through thematic categorisation (Boyatzis, 1999), I could draw conclusions and add to the knowledge base in the field of study. The most prominent feature of my results was the level of involvement music had in infants’ day-to-day lives, with each infant from participating families being immersed in music and song throughout their day. One mother, for example, used music each morning as a ‘gentle way to wake up’ her infant. According to Malloch (1999), such instances of ‘Communicative Musicality’, where carers and infants interact through the mediums of music and/or song, underpins communication and early language learning. In the home environment, these interactions typically took place as mothers used music and song to regulate their infants’ moods. Since all participants in the study were mothers, it is unclear as to whether this is the same for other significant adult role models in infants’ lives and future research taking this into account may add to the knowledge base.

Limitations in the study included the small sample size, little variance in participants socioeconomic and ethnic background, little variance in family structures, the study’s short time scale which disallowed follow up research, the potential for mothers with post-natal depression to have participated, and an imbalance in parent and infant genders.

I concluded in support of my original proposition, stating that the day-to-day lives of infants seemed immersed in music and song because of mothers’ parenting styles. Mothers’ own affinity for music had the greatest impact on the amount this was the case with relatively consistent rationalities and purposes. However, the types of music mothers played, what guided their music choices, and how regularly mothers sang or played music to their infant varied from family to family. I further surmised that musical parenting significantly assisted social and cognitive development in infants.

I may come back to the field of research my dissertation was related to, with intent to find out more either by replicating my study on a larger scale or by taking a different approach entirely. For now, though, I am content at training to become an Early Years Teacher and cannot express how much positive impact it has had on my practice. This is mainly due to the high expectations set, where my practice and planning is regularly observed and discussed with me to highlight potential improvements and future goals. Next year, I hope to begin a Masters in either Early Years or Early Childhood Studies.






Benavides-Varela, S., Hochmann, J-R., Macogno, F., Nespor, M. and Mehler, J. (2012) ‘Newborns’ brain activity signals the origin of word memories’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(44), pp. 17908-17913.

Boyatzis, R. E. (1999) Transforming Qualitative Information: Thematic Analysis and Code Development. Michigan: University of Michigan.

Brandt, A., Gebrian, M. and Slevc, L. (2012) ‘Music and early language acquisition’, Frontiers in Psychology, 3(327).

Chomsky, N. (2014) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. 50th Anniversary Edition. London: MIT Press.

Christophe, A., Dupoux, E., Bertoncini, J. and Mehler, J. (1994) ‘Do infants perceive word boundaries? An empirical study of the bootstrapping of lexical acquisition’, Acoustical Society of America, 95(1570).

Malloch, S. (1999) ‘Mothers and Infants and communicative musicality’, Musicae Scientae, Special Education 1999-2000, pp. 29-57.

Perani, D., Saccuman, M. C., Scifo, P., Spada, D., Andreolli, D., Rovelli, R., Baldoli, C. and Koelsch, F. (2010) ‘Functional specialisations for music processing in the human newborn brain’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America, 107(10), pp. 4758-4763.

Rubin, H. and Rubin, I. (2012) Qualitative interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data. 3rd edn. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.

Sammons, J., Hall, J., Smees, R. and Goff, J. with Sylva, K., Smith, T., Evangelou, M., Eisenstadt, N. and Smith, G. (2015) The Impact of Children’s Centres: Studying the Effects of Children’s Centres in Promoting Better Outcomes for Young Children and Their Families. Evaluation of Children’s Centres in England (ECCE, Strand 4). Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/485346/DFE-RR495_Evaluation_of_children_s_centres_in_England__the_impact_of_children_s_centres_.pdf (Accessed: 24 December 2016).

Trehub, S. E., Hill, D. S. and Kamenetsky, S. B. (1997) ‘Parents’ sung performances for infants’, Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 51(4), pp. 385-396.

Vouloumanos, A. and Werker, J. F. (2007) ‘Listening to Language at Birth: Evidence for a Bias for Speech in Neonates’, Developmental Science, 10(2), pp. 159-164.

Robert Heath
Robert is an Early Years Educator who has just completed his BA Hons degree having already completed his Early Years Foundation degree. He has written for us about how he came to his particular area of research.
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