Plenty of research has looked at adults’ emotional responses to music. But research with babies is more piecemeal and eclectic, perhaps reflecting the difficulty of asking them what they like. Researchers know that babies can hear and remember music even while they are still in the womb. And one curious study found that newborn babies prefer Bach to Aerosmith.
Most systematic work has found young babies have clear preferences for consonance over dissonance and can remember the tempo and timbre of music they’ve heard before. Babies prefer the female voice but like it even more when it takes on the qualities of “motherese” (the high-energy singsong tone we all naturally adopt when talking to babies). But their emotional responses to music is a bit more of a mystery. What kind of music makes them calm and content? And what makes them happy?
I am an expert on baby laughter and was intrigued when the C&G baby club approached me and music psychologist Lauren Stewart to create “a song scientifically proven to make babies happy” that they could give away to parents. We thought this was an interesting challenge. However, our first proviso was that they shouldn’t use the word “prove”. Our second was that they had let us do real science. They readily agreed.
The first step was to discover what was already known about the sounds and music that might make babies happy. We had some experience. My previous work on the Baby Laughter project had asked parents about the nursery rhymes and silly sounds that appealed to babies. Lauren’s previous research has looked at “earworms”, songs that get stuck in your head. But we discovered surprisingly little research on babies’ musical preferences. This was encouraging as it meant this was a worthwhile project from a scientific point of view.
The next step was to find the right composer: Grammy-award winner Imogen Heap. Imogen is a highly tech-savvy musician who just happened to have an 18-month-old daughter of her own. She was also intrigued by the challenges of the project. Few musicians had taken on the task of writing real music to excite babies while still appealing to parents. Musician Michael Janisch recorded a whole album of Jazz for Babies, but that was very slow and designed to soothe babies. Most music written specifically for babies sounds frankly deranged.
We met with Heap and gave her a set of recommendations based on what we had discovered from the past research. The song ought to be in an major key with a simple and repetitive main melody with musical devices like drum rolls, key changes and rising pitch glides to provide opportunities for anticipation and surprise. Because babies’ heart rates are much faster than ours so the music ought to be more uptempo than we would expect. And finally, it should have an energetic female vocal, ideally recorded in the presence of an actual baby.
Setting up the experiment
Fortunately Heap had her daughter, Scout, to help her with the composition. Heap created four melodies for us to test in the lab, two fast and two slow ones. For each of these she created a version with and without simple sung lyrics. Some 26 babies between six and 12 months then came to our lab with their mums and a few dads to give us their opinion. Amazingly most of the parents and 20 out of 26 babies seemed to share a clear preference for one particular melody. In line with our predictions this was a faster melody. Even more amazingly, this was the tune that had started out as a little ditty made up by Scout.