Mini maestros: Study finds babies accurately mimic tunes of songs

COLUMBUS, Ohio — For babies, the world is very much their oyster. Newborns soak up as much information and experiences as possible, which of course includes language. It’s been long established that babies learn to speak by mimicking the words they hear from their parents and caregivers. Now, a new study conducted at Ohio State University finds that babies have quite the ear for music as well. The research team discovered that babies sometimes imitate the singing they hear in songs.

Audio was recorded of a 15-month old boy making melodic sounds similar to the tune of “Happy Birthday” just a few hours after he heard the song. A more extensive analysis of the recording revealed that the baby hit the first six notes of the tune quite accurately, even correctly singing in G-major!

“We know that throughout the first year of life babies become sophisticated music listeners — they learn a lot about the patterns of pitches and rhythms in music,” comments lead author Lucia Benetti, a doctoral student at The Ohio State University School of Music, in a release. “And infants become better at doing this spontaneously. But we don’t know much about how exactly this happens.”

The research team tracked James, a 15-month old baby for a total of 16 straight hours. During that period, James wore a small recording device that captured every single sound he heard and made. Afterwards, the recording was analyzed using language measurement software. This technology had been used in the past to observe how babies develop their overall language skills, but this is the first time it was utilized to see how infants react to music.

James’ daily activities, such as meals and naps, were also recorded by his parents during the observation period.

On observation day, James played with a toy in the morning for 10 minutes that played the melody of “Happy Birthday.” Hours later, the recording device detected James making about four seconds worth of sounds that sounded like the beginning of “Happy Birthday.”

To make sure they weren’t allowing their own bias to influence their results, the study’s authors even shared the recording of James “singing” with others who weren’t aware of the study’s purpose or pretense. Sure enough, those individuals said it sounded like James was trying to sing “Happy Birthday.”

Additionally, shortly after eating lunch, James’ mother sang “Rain, rain, go away” to him twice. Six hours later, James started singing a tune similar to “Rain, Rain” while playing with his father. When dad heard, he started singing the song again for James, and James repeated it for his father.

While this study only included a single baby, it’s findings are nonetheless clear: babies can learn songs and melodies just from hearing some tunes. Future studies on this topic will include more than just one infant.

“We could try to do it systematically to really start to understand how this learning occurs,” Benetti says. “From this study, we at least know that it happens.”

In conclusion, researchers say parents shouldn’t shy away at all from singing to their kids.

“The social aspect of music is important — if a baby sees their mother singing, they know she’s engaging with that song, that she’s enjoying it, and they know it must be important,” Benetti adds. “I think that social context is important. It’s engaging and it’s socially relevant, and for them, that’s enough.”

The study is published in the Journal of Research in Music Education.