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The massive impact that music has on your baby’s brain development

By Cradlewise Staff

All babies are born musical geniuses. Most stop being one when they grow up. Music, like language and laughter, is one of those things that make us human. And it goes far beyond just white noise or baby sleep music.

The importance of music from an evolutionary standpoint is hotly debated, but most people agree that better musical abilities correlate with longevity, happiness, and well-being. In this article, we’ll explore what you can do to help your baby hone this innate talent.

Baby Development: Sense of Sound

First, let’s understand the auditory world from your baby’s point of view.

Did you know?
Your baby starts hearing as early as 16 weeks into pregnancy. Studies have demonstrated that the fetus can respond to sounds at 19 weeks.

She can’t see the world for another 20 weeks, but she already senses the hustle-bustle. But hearing does not necessarily mean listening.

It’s hard to tell what the fetus perceives exactly in this early stage of development. It’s like imagining how a rose would smell by listening to your friend’s description of it.

Womb effect: Sounds different from the outside

We can only guess based on the physics of the environment and the studies on fetal response to sound.

Womb is an aquatic environment. Similar to baby in a pool.

Here’s what we know. The womb is an aquatic environment. The next time you go swimming, notice how things sound different underwater.

So the sounds of the outside world go through a natural low pass filter.

Did you know?
How does a low pass filter change things? Imagine you were listening to a Guns N’ Roses song. Your baby would definitely hear the drums and the bass guitar. But that epic riff from Slash on the leads, not so much.

Moreover, since the treble is more attenuated and less often heard, the neural pathways for perceiving treble develop later.

How does it sound in the womb?

Let’s listen to some audio clips to get a better sense of the difference the womb makes. Here’s a clip of a popular song and how it would sound to you normally:

Here’s what it sounds like after the low pass filter effect of the womb:

So this is what you would actually hear in the womb (note the whoosh of the fluids):

Did you know?
The womb is a pretty noisy place. There are sounds of blood running through the vessels and the movement of the stomach and intestines. The sounds can reach a level of about 90 dB (sound of a lawnmower). 

Another example with the famous song from “Queen”

Outside the womb:

After womb low pass filter effect:

What your baby actually hears in the womb:

Mother’s voice almost unchanged

In stark contrast to external sounds, the baby in the womb can hear the mother’s sounds almost unchanged.

To get a sense of how it sounds, plug your ears. Now, say something. Notice how you can hear your own voice almost unchanged.

That’s how the mother’s voice sounds to the baby in the womb.

Baby in womb can hear mother's voice almost unchanged.

Albeit with a difference that the listening sensitivity for the bass is still higher because the bass is heard the most. Hence, treble is heard but not perceived as much.

So, like most other aspects, the mother has the biggest influence over the baby’s auditory world.

Luckily for fathers, the bass is heard in the womb, so your baritone will make it. Remember that it is a noisy world there, so go close and be loud. Let your baby know that you are there for her too.

Sounds after birth

The moment of birth changes everything. It’s as if a dark thunderstorm raging for months turned into a dry, sunny day in a moment. It’s bright and very, very quiet!

Also, the low pass filter is out.

Neurons that process the upper registers jump into action.

Did you know?
Within 7 months after birth, an infant can perceive sound across all pitches.

Rhythms of the womb

Pitch is only a part of sound and musical perception. Rhythm has an equally important role.

In the womb, there are several rhythms for your baby. The mother’s heartbeat, breathing, and speech, there’s a complete repertoire of rhythms in the womb. The heartbeat, in particular, is like an ever-present metronome.

In addition, a baby can feel the mother’s emotions too.

So when a mother is anxious, her heartbeat increases. She also releases hormones that are passed on to the fetus. The baby receives these together and can sense the mom’s emotion.

A correlation between lower heartbeat and calmer moods has also been made.

Rhythms that can calm or excite a baby

So after birth, music with a BPM (Beats per minute) lower than the mother’s heartbeat has a calming effect on babies.

Likewise, music with a BPM higher than the mother’s heartbeat is perceived to be exciting.

Did you know?
Apart from being critical for music, perception of rhythm plays a vital role in language development. Even if your baby can’t understand you at birth, it is already trained to recognize the phonetic patterns in your language.

Encouraging musical play in babies

Second trimester

  • Talk to your baby. Read stories if you are out of ideas.
  • Sing notes. Be careful to tune yourself using a guitar or a piano. You don’t want to teach wrong notes to your baby.
  • Babies understand the relation between consonant notes more readily than dissonant ones. Hence play consonant notes more often in the early stages. The following notes are ideal to start with. (Note: These are recommendations for mothers. Fathers have to do it at an octave lower for the best effect. A normal hum is okay, but a hum with the ‘Tee’ or’ Pa’ sound is more effective. They are more discernible and penetrate more. You can even use the classical names of the notes for humming: Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do )
  • If you get bored with the notes, you can sing songs. The rhythms of the music are more important than the pitch. So it may not help a lot for pitch training at this stage.
  • Play music with simple rhythms and beats. Rock music with simple drums is okay too. But if you play Jazz, you are expecting too much.

Third Trimester

  • Keep talking. Conversations between the father and the mother will help even more during this phase.
  • You can start singing more complex note patterns now. But pay attention to consonance. Introduce notes in the order below.
  • Rhythm is still the most crucial component. Keep the music you play or sing simple. 

Birth to 4 months: Beyond White noise

Music for baby sleep white noise pink noise brown noise
  • The baby is out. It can hear more frequencies now. Feel free to sing at any pitch. Fathers now’s your time. Finally, she can hear you clearly.
  • The rules of consonance are still valid. Sing the same set of notes mentioned above in the same order, but you can explore higher octaves now.
  • Classical music is proven to have calming effects. The “Mozart effect” may have been blown out of proportion, but it’s generally agreed that classical music can only have positive effects overall. 
  • Pat your baby as per the rhythms of a song playing in the background. This helps them to associate rhythm with the beats of a song.

4 to 7 months

  • The sharps and flats (black keys) on the piano can finally be explored now. Go full scale and all keys. Use a drone for setting the ambiance at a fixed note or a cycle of 2 to 3 notes. You may also use a mobile app to imitate a drone. Set the drone to the scale you sing or the scale of the musical instrument you play.
  • Classical music is good when the baby is asleep, but there is nothing wrong with playing your favorite genre. I have personally put my baby to sleep with Linkin Park’s Faint at times. It worked like magic!
  • Noise is still pretty effective at calming your baby. But use it sparingly and at low volumes.
  • Your baby might start to be able to sit. Take her in your lap, hold her hands and drum up along with a song using her hands (just imaginary drums, not real ones).

Here’s the notes’ repertoire I used for my children (in my voice).

Tips to help your baby sleep using music

Babies spend the majority of their time sleeping in the first few months. Audio perception is relatively alive, even during sleep, unlike many other senses.

Music for baby sleep. Calm music for fussy baby
  • Exposing your child to music not only helps preserve sleep but also improves overall sleep quality. Also, the music drowns any other sudden noises that may lead to a wake-up. 
  • Spend the time to make a curated list for your baby. The genre of music during the transition to sleep is not so critical. Use whatever works for your baby. 
  • Usually, simpler music with easy rhythms works better for putting a baby to sleep. Strong recurring patterns create a familiar environment and help your baby feel secure. 
  • Try playing a song on repeat mode till your little one falls asleep. It’s highly effective. 
  • During sleep, calm music helps regulate breathing, heart rate, and the baby’s sleep cycles. 
  • Avoid sudden changes in volume, tempo, and genre in your playlist. 

Sleep playlists for your baby

Here is a list of songs that I used for my little ones. (Note: Classical pieces have many renditions. Listen to the whole music before playing it, lest you wake your little angel). 

Songs for transitioning into sleep:

Songs to play during sleep:

Sources:

  1. Fetus can respond to sounds at 19 weeks. NCBI. 1994. “Development of fetal hearing
  2. Sound levels in the womb can reach up to 90 dB. Hearing Health Matters. 2014. “What fetuses and babies hear
  3. Music with BPM lower than mother’s heartbeat has calming effect on babies. Unicef. 2019. “How music affects your baby’s brain
  4. Baby can recognise phonetic patterns at birth. NCBI. 2013. “Linking prenatal experience to the emerging musical mind
  5. Mozart Effect. Scientific American. 2007. “Fact or Fiction?: Babies Exposed to Classical Music End Up Smarter
THE ULTIMATE GUIDEBaby’s Brain Developmentin the First 1,000 Days

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