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Research Shows Babies Are Relaxed By Lullabies Even in Foreign Languages: The Frère Jacques Response


Virtually all new parents quickly discover that a lullaby will actually help a baby relax, but they might be surprised to learn that babies are not fussy about language.

Researchers at the Harvard Music Laboratory have determined that American babies relax when unfamiliar lullabies are played in a foreign language.

“Common sense tells us that babies find the lullabies they listen to relaxing,” said Samuel Mehr, associate researcher in the Department of Psychology and principal investigator in the Music Laboratory. “Is this just because they have experienced their parents singing before and know that it means they are safe? Or is there also something universal about lullabies that produces these effects, regardless of experience? “

The new findings, published in Human behavior from nature, supported the latter hypothesis.

The babies responded to the universal elements of the songs, despite unfamiliarity with their melodies and words, and relaxed. The study was conducted in 2018 and 2019 at the Music Lab, which focuses on the psychology of music from infancy to adulthood.

In the experiment, each baby watched an animated video of two characters singing a lullaby or one that was not a lullaby. To measure the babies’ relaxation responses to the recordings, the researchers focused on pupil dilation, changes in heart rate, electrodermal activity (a measure of “arousal,” or arousal, of the electrical resistance of the skin), blink frequency, and gaze direction as indicators of relaxation or agitation.

The music lab

Generally, babies experienced a decrease in heart rate and pupil dilation, and attenuated electrodermal activity in response to unfamiliar lullabies.

The researchers had to act quickly due to the limited attention span of their subjects; most babies can pay attention for about five minutes before becoming distracted.

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“In an ideal world, we would play babies a dozen songs that are lullabies and a dozen songs that are not lullabies and collect a lot of data from each baby. But a baby’s attention span is short, so the experiment is also short, ”said Mila Bertolo, first co-author of the research. the Harvard Gazette.

The songs were chosen through a previous Music Lab study, in which adults rated the likelihood that an unknown foreign song was a lullaby, a dance song, a healing song, or a love song. Using a cross-cultural sample of adult-rated lullabies helped the researchers avoid incorporating their own selection bias, where they might be more inclined to choose songs that are more like a Western lullaby, Bertolo said.

The 16 songs selected for the experiment come from the Song’s Natural History Discography and include lullabies and other songs originally produced to express love, heal the sick, or encourage dancing. Languages ​​such as Scottish Gaelic, Hopi, and Western Nahuatl, and regions such as Polynesia, Central America, and the Middle East were represented in the chosen songs.

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“The melody is one of the things that stands out in lullabies. In comparison, in many other types of songs, such as dance songs, you would see that rhythm is more of a driving force, ”explained Connie Bainbridge, who co-led the research with Bertolo at the Music Lab, and is now seeking a PhD in communication at UCLA.

Separately, the researchers asked parents to listen to both types of songs and choose which one they would use to soothe their baby. They almost always chose the lullaby, indicating that they also recognized the universal elements of the lullaby, even subconsciously. Calming a fussy baby is an urgent matter for parents. Those of us with infants may be particularly sensitive to acoustic characteristics that appear universally in lullabies, as they are more likely to soothe our babies efficiently, ”Mehr said.

The findings are “a testament to how effective music is,” Bertolo said. “This piece of the puzzle helps us make sense of certain types of after-effects,” such as music therapy in clinical settings. “It’s an interesting question to see if the very thing that drives babies to relax would last into adulthood.”

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The researchers predict that the results could be replicated with a different group of subjects from another culture. They also plan to continue investigating the questions posed during the experiment, such as which of the specific acoustic elements in a lullaby encourage relaxation, how singing interacts with other activities and environments to induce relaxation, and what inferences babies can make while listening. .

Research provides evidence that singing can help babies relax and, in doing so, may improve daily life for both the child and the caregiver.

“While the music in general was soothing, there was something about the lullabies that was especially soothing, so in theory there could be ways to optimize the music we provide to babies to make them more effective,” Bainbridge added. “Also, it’s an interesting area to explore in terms of the function of music: is it an adaptation that we evolved for or a by-product of language or auditory cognition? Our findings seem to support the idea that there actually is an evolutionary role for music. “

Source: Harvard – See additional stories about music and babies at The music lab.

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