The Power of Music

Music is a profound pleasure, even for babies–why?  As neurologist, Oliver Sacks, explained:  “music occupies more areas of our brain than language does—humans are a musical species”!  Indeed, researchers at MIT recently discovered a distinct region for music, apart from language, in the auditory processing area. Beyond the sharing of similar sound signatures that would integrate language and music processes, music perception resides alone.

Oliver Sacks, in quoting Irving J. Massey, repeated the foretelling of this finding: “Music is the only faculty that is not altered by the dream environment, whereas action, character, visual elements and language may all be modified or distorted in dreams. Music in dreams does not become fragmented, chaotic or incoherent, neither does it decay as rapidly as do the other components of dreams on our awakening…Music in dreams then is the same as music in our waking life…One might say that music never sleeps. ..It is as if it were an autonomous system, indifferent to our consciousness or lack of it.”

Musical sound is more than a magical world for your baby, it heightens his development more than we realize. For one, how we move influences our baby’s musical rhythm perception. Jessica Phillips-Silver and Laurel J. Trainor tested seven month-old infants at their baby lab at McMaster University in Canada and discovered: if you dance a waltz rather than a jig, your baby will prefer the waltz. They also explain that it is the movement of the head and activating of the vestibular system, more than the limbs, that cause metrical encoding to take place. Trainor most recently found that if you dance with your baby in sync to music, the baby will most likely show a tendency for pro-social behavior.

While in the womb, the first rhythm a baby hears is its mother’s heartbeat. In utero infants coordinate their pulse and breathing to match their mother’s. Once born, the breast with beating heart beneath reminiscently offers the newborn comfort. Even the most passive babies become energized with rhythmic sounds.
A group of researchers from Norway and Hungary discovered that two-day old infants have a sense of rhythm enough to decipher when a rock rhythm skips a standard base beat. We are figuratively born able to clap our hands and tap our toes to the music, but we must wait for our muscles to mature and coordinate the necessary movement. This capacity, called beat induction, appears to be unique to humans. It is the forerunner to learning to interact and communicate through language.

Our sense of rhythm is innate. Tasuku Sugimoto and Kazuhide Hashiya of Kyushu University in Japan lead a research team testing how a baby chimpanzee, never before exposed to music, responded to consonant and dissonant melodies. After observing the young chimp as she aged from 17 weeks to 23 weeks, the team concluded that the chimp voluntarily took control to listen most frequently to the more pleasant consonant music. “Our main surprise was the results being so consistent” said Hashiya. As he argues, “The preference. . . has implications for the debate surrounding human uniqueness in the capacity for music appreciation.”

Nonetheless, humankind’s profound capacity to create and respond to music is unique. We may well have developed musical abilities because babies indirectly taught us rhythm. Consider how caregivers of infants naturally take to rocking babies to sooth them–because it works, couple this with sing-song motherese.
Both music and language (spoken or signed), being rule-based systems, share a similar processing mechanism designed to decipher structure.

Language is primarily processed in the brain’s left hemisphere; however, it still communicates and integrates with the right hemisphere. Music is processed evenly between both sides, and in its own distinct region. Even newborns can distinguish tonal sounds from speech. By six months a baby is analyzing word meanings, and watching your mouth and moving theirs. At the end of their first year the two separate brain regions involved, one for hearing and the other for producing speech, are in sync simultaneously processing the input. Because both language and music share characteristics of rhythm and pitch, song and music can sensitize brainstem response to speech sounds and emotional content.

Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles are conducting a study designed to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) enhance their emotional intelligence through exposure to music. Importantly, the experiments will take place in the “natural” environment of a classroom. As one of the principal investigators, Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, argues: “Music is a birthright of all children. To be able to listen and appreciate, sing or participate in music-making are as essential to development as mathematical or linguistic learning.”  Independently, a number of published research reviews concluded that music therapy was effective with children with ASD. Some studies have shown that given these children’s sensitivity to sound, their musical listening preference is classical.

For the general listener, music produces emotions like the emotional quality of perceived music–regardless of age, gender, and musical training.  Recent studies have also shown that after listening to music with specific emotional content our visual perceptions are primed in that emotional direction. If we see a person who is just a bit sad after listening to the Beatle’s Eleanor Rigby, to us they will look sadder than they really are. This effect is even more pronounced if we encountered people with neutral expressions.

These universal and powerful responses demonstrate the unique place music plays in our lives–from birth to old age–as does the discovery of our brain’s distinct music region. Listen and let the power of music work wonders.


Distinct Cortical Pathways for Music and Speech Revealed by Hypothesis-Free Voxel Decomposition.  Norman-Haignere, Sam et al.  Neuron , Volume 88 , Issue 6 , 1281 – 1296. DOI:

Perceived and Induced Emotion Responses to Popular Music: Categorical and Dimensional Models. Song, Y; Dixon, S; Pearce, MT; Halpern, AR.

Amelia Oldfield (2016). The Future of Music Therapy for Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder, in: Envisioning the Future of Music Therapy (page 96-103), edited by, Cheryl Dileo. Published by Temple University.

Logeswaran, N. & Bhattacharya, J. (2009). Crossmodal transfer of emotion by music Neurosci. Lett. 455: 129-133. DOI: 10.1016/j.neulet.2009.03.044

UCLA receives grant to study impact of music on schoolchildren with autism

Baby chimps’ innate preference for pleasurable melodies. Music appreciation is not unique to humans and is independent of culture.

First Evidence That Musical Training Affects Brain Development in Young Children

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Award winning product: “music for babies” available from Advanced Brain

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