Birth of the beat: Birth to 6 months


What can babies hear and how do they respond to music?


Your new little baby is not only cute but is already a musical genius!  You’ll notice how much your baby loves novel sounds, songs and especially when you sing to him or read a rhyming story.  Here’s some evidence-based research so you know what your child loves and what they can do during music.


 Music Perception 


0-3 months

By the time she is born the newborn infant is so familiar with rhythm that within the first 24 hours of life she can already move in rhythm with the human voice.  


Babies have incredible aural processing skills and can hear tones and changes in sounds that we can’t hear as adults. They can also hear our emotions in our voice and will respond positively when we speak to them with love and affection. Alternatively they will also respond negatively when they hear anger, stress or sadness in our voices.  


The newborn infant can show discrimination and preference for her mother’s native language at around 4 days old. She can also distinguish other languages that are rhythmically related to her mother tongue, such as English/Dutch and Italian/Spanish.  In a UK research study, newborn infants could even tell the difference between two Dr Suess books, recognizing the one read to them in utero.  


Newborn infants prefer the sound of their mother’s voice using infant directed speech (IDS). The rhythmic features of IDS include a slow tempo, long pauses, and short rhythmic phrases. It’s our intuitive way of speaking with babies and animals J.


Having ‘conversations’ with your baby is great. Early imitative voice-play and sound-making or gestural conversations enhance attachment through the promotion and rehearsal of emotional attunement, language and social skills, sharing of affective states and regulating and maintaining arousal.

 Research shows these interactions are naturally sensitively and intuitively timed, occurring in a coordinated and rhythmic fashion that matches the preferences of the infant.  


4-6 months

Between 4-6 months the young infant demonstrates sensitive and precocious perception of rhythm, melodic contours, simple frequency ratios such as the octave and some aspects of harmony similarly to adult processing.

 At 4 months of age an infant can match the rhythmic structure of her mother’s songs and can also discriminate between verbal sentences.  Infants’ perception of pitch and timing are so specific that they are able to discriminate very small differences in familiar sequences, regardless of culture.They can also tell the difference between bass and treble tones and can notice changes in rhythmic patterns, beat and tempo.  

 Infants aged 6 months have finely tuned rhythmic perception and are able to recognize changes in meter in both Western and foreign rhythmic phrases. As the infant develops, this ability to discriminate non-Western rhythms diminishes as the infant doesn’t need this ability.  

 Babies have an innate perception of rhythm and melodic contour and it has been suggested that these innate elements are developed early as they are a necessary precursor to processing speech patterns.  


 Musical Responses

 A 1-3 month old infant enjoys vestibular stimulation (movement) through being rocked or swayed. She can engage in head nodding and shaking and respond positively to tactile and rhythmic stimulation such as stroking, tapping, patting and tickling.  

 The 3-6 month old baby becomes more sensitive to the emotional nature of music.  She will begin to bounce and sway to music she likes or music with a strong beat and can bang hands and kick rhythmically in response to music.  


What music do baby’s like?  

This means that random synthesized sounds(such as those found on musical toys, TV and radio) are notoptimal sound stimulation for the developing infant. Musicalmobiles and toys in particular are inappropriate where ‘...theresults are often musically impoverished, with limitations of pitch range, rhythmic interest, timbral variety and harmony’  (Young, 2008, p. 40).


Infants prefer their music to be predicable with a regular pulse using natural sounds 

and authentic timbre (real instruments).


 Studies have shown that your baby’s responses to music are common across a wide range of cultures and seem to be universal.  Tactile and vestibular stimulation is provided through handling music making toys, contingent and predictable rhymes and finger plays such as ‘Round and round the garden’, ‘This little piggy’ or performing actions to songs.


These chants, games or songs contain simple and predictable phrases and rhythms and often include repetitive movements that match the lyrical content.   Active music participation such as singing, moving, playing with instruments or sound-producing toys have a positive effect on infant brain development. This effect is also present as a result of active listening to sounds and  changes in sounds and are enhanced by parental and/or family involvement.