Babies move to the beat: Infants enjoy live music as much as adults!

TORONTO, Ontario — Spotify and iTunes may be convenient, but nothing beats live music – even for babies! Scientists at the University of Toronto report that while watching a live performance of a “baby opera,” infants’ heart rates synchronized, and were significantly more engaged than other babies who watched an identical recording of the very same show.

“Their heart rates were speeding up and slowing down in a similar fashion to other babies watching the show,” says Laura Cirelli, assistant professor in the department of psychology at U of T Scarborough and co-author of the new study. “Those babies were dealing with all these distractions in the concert hall, but still had these uninterrupted bursts of attention.”

These results indicate that even infants feel the influence of attending a live show, through both musicians’ interactions with an audience and the social experience of being in a crowd in general. Prof. Cirelli explains that at certain moments during the performance, a calm would sweep over the babies. Meanwhile, at other times, when a change in pitch or vocal riff occurred for example, all the babies would become excited simultaneously.

Study authors believe this work may offer important insights regarding why humans are hardwired to consume music and attend live shows in the first place.

“If there’s something happening that we collectively are engaging with, we’re also connecting with each other. It speaks to the shared experience,” adds Prof. Cirelli, director of the TEMPO Lab, which studies how infants and children respond to music, in a media release.

“The implication is that this is not necessarily specific to this one performance. If there’s these moments that capture us, then we are being captured together.”

baby listening in black headphones
Photo by Alireza Attari from Unsplash

It’s long been established that socialization is key to early childhood development; during this time an infant’s brain is laying the groundwork for future life skills and abilities. Prof. Cirelli says music can play a powerful part in making those important bonds, pointing to recent research suggesting babies are more likely to socialize with someone after hearing them sing a familiar song or dancing to music with them. Babies have also been found to exhibit strong emotional reactions to music and song even before turning 12 months-old.

“We consistently find that music can be a highly social and emotional context within which infants can foster connections to their caregivers, other family members and even new acquaintances,” the study author comments. “This audience study shows that even in a community context, infants are engaging with the music and connecting to their fellow audience members.”

Study authors analyzed a total of 120 babies (ages 6 to 14 months) while they watched a children’s opera performed at a concert hall that doubles as a research facility at McMaster University. More specifically, 61 babies watched the performance live in person, and another 59 watched a recorded version. The research team was sure to meticulously broadcast the recorded version so that the performers were at the same size, distance, and volume as the live version.

Meanwhile, the researchers tracked babies’ responses using heart monitors and tablets mounted on the backs of concert seats. Afterwards, a group of student research assistants analyzed all of the footage, noting precisely when babies looked at the stage versus when they looked away.

The live performance captured their attention for 72 percent of the 12-minute show, but the recording only held their attention for 54 percent. The live show also had babies continually watching for longer periods of time.

“Even little babies who may or may not have experienced music in a community context before are already engaging more when it’s delivered this way,” Prof. Cirelli adds. “That’s one question we have as music cognition researchers: What is it about the live experience that’s worth it? Why would people go if there’s not something fundamental about that live music experience that’s above and beyond listening to music by yourself?”

Baby lying on bed while adult plays music
Baby lying on bed while adult plays music (Photo by Giu Vicente from Unsplash_

To be clear, study authors say these findings don’t necessarily suggest babies find virtual performances boring. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic researchers virtually studied one group of babies as they watched the same recording in their homes over Zoom. Those remote-viewing babies paid generally the same amount of attention as other babies who attended the live show (watching roughly 64% on average). However, babies using Zoom were also more likely to get distracted throughout the performance and display shorter bursts of attention.

“The babies watching at home didn’t have the distraction of being in a new place, they were in their comfort zone. But even without distractions the quality of their attention was still not nearly as strong as the audience in the live condition.”

This project will directly feed into some of Prof. Cirelli’s other work. Another study will involve exploring whether a live performance over Zoom has the same impact on engagement as a live performance in person, as well as whether musicians’ interactions with an audience can indeed play a similarly powerful role when it comes to capturing attention. An additional project will aim to analyze whether live performances impact memory of an event and how watching a live performance versus a recorded version may influence feelings about a performer.

“If a baby is frequently brought to these kinds of events, will that shape their foundation for engaging in music and the community later in childhood?” Prof. Cirelli concludes. “It speaks to why we even engage with music at all.”

The study is published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics Creativity and the Arts.

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