Babies distinguish between happy, sad music

October 16, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Babies as young as 5 months old can distinguish an upbeat song from among gloomier compositions; and by the time they're 9 months, they can also pick out the sad song from among the happy ones. That's according to a new study by a research team that included Iowa State University Assistant Professor of Psychology Douglas Gentile.

Gentile teamed up with Brigham Young University psychology professor and lead author Ross Flom and Anne Pick, professor emeritus in the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, on the study of 96 infants. Their paper "Infants; discrimination of happy and sad music," will be published in the upcoming issue of the academic journal Infant Behavior and Development.

While the study shows how babies can make sense of the world long before they can talk, Gentile says it also provides some evidence of music's universal language when it comes to mood.

"These babies are not old enough to have already learned cultural or idiosyncratic differences in interpreting music," said Gentile. "This study shows that some pieces of music -- although not all -- can communicate happiness, or sadness."

The researchers examined 3-, 5-, 7- and 9-month-old infants' discrimination among 10 musical excerpts, previously judged by adults and preschoolers as being either happy or sad. Happy excerpts included such selections as "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto #3" (First movement), while the sad examples included Beethoven's Symphony #7 and Greig's "Aase's Death."

Subjects were seated in an infant seat facing a video monitor that displayed an emotionally neutral face as the music was played. The researchers monitored the infant's interest in the facial image while different selections were played.

"In infant studies, you use whatever babies can do, and one thing they can do is look," said Gentile, who conducted similar research on infants for his doctoral dissertation. "You can learn a lot from seeing how long they look at something. If there's an interest, they'll look at the image longer, but as they get used to it, they look less."

When the baby looked away from the image of the face, the music stopped and the researchers queued up a new excerpt. For each song, observers recorded how long the baby paid attention to the face. Babies that noticed a switch from happy to sad, or vice versa, stared at the face longer -- demonstrating that they could tell the difference.

"If we changed the music from happy to sad, then they would look longer (at the image) because they would notice a difference," Gentile said. "As babies learn the category, such as sad music, they get bored and they look away if they're picking up on category similarity. But if you change to a new category, such as happy music, they would look longer again."

"That's what's happening here, at least for 9-month-olds. They could discriminate between the happy and sad pieces of music," he said. "For the 5- and 7-month-olds, they could notice the difference (among happy songs, but not sad), but it was not as robust."

Although the study identifies the developmental age when infants begin to detect musical differences, Gentile says it also has greater application to parents about the emotional power of music.

"Because I research the effects of violent media on children, parents often ask me about the harmful effects of violent music and lyrics on their children," he said. "My answer is that the main power of music isn't really in its lyrics. Music is an emotional medium. We choose to listen to music either to match our mood, or to change our mood.

"If your child is spending a lot of time playing angry music, that suggests that something is going on that you might want to ask about," Gentile said. "This study shows that music is emotionally communicative since even babies seem to attend to the emotional content of music."

Provided by Iowa State University

Explore further: File compression format found to alter timbre of music causing loss of some emotional context

Related Stories

File compression format found to alter timbre of music causing loss of some emotional context

December 12, 2016
(TechXplore)—A small team of researchers with Hong Kong University of Science and Technology has found that compressing recorded music into the MP3 format results in the loss of emotional tones, leaving the result with ...

Why do we enjoy listening to sad music?

July 11, 2013
Sad music might actually evoke positive emotions reveals a new study by Japanese researchers published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology. The findings help to explain why people enjoy listening to sad music, ...

Holding on to the blues: Depressed individuals may fail to decrease sadness

June 23, 2015
Given that depression is characterized by intense and frequent negative feelings, like sadness, it might seem logical to develop interventions that target those negative feelings. But new research suggests that even when ...

Happy notes, happy memories

February 28, 2017
Happy memories spring to mind much faster than sad, scary or peaceful ones. Moreover, if you listen to happy or peaceful music, you recall positive memories, whereas if you listen to emotionally scary or sad music, you recall ...

Musical study challenges long-held view of left brain-right brain split

June 4, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Ever been stuck in traffic when a feel-good song comes on the radio and suddenly your mood lightens?

Aggressive music related to anxiety in men

October 22, 2015
Brain imaging reveals how neural responses to different types of music really affect the emotion regulation of persons. The study concludes that men who process negative feelings with music react negatively to aggressive ...

Recommended for you

Communicating in a foreign language takes emotion out of decision making

August 16, 2017
If you could save the lives of five people by pushing another bystander in front of a train to his death, would you do it? And should it make any difference if that choice is presented in a language you speak, but isn't your ...

US antidepressant use jumps 65 percent in 15 years

August 15, 2017
(HealthDay)—The number of Americans who say they've taken an antidepressant over the past month rose by 65 percent between 1999 and 2014, a new government survey finds.

Child's home learning environment predicts 5th grade academic skills

August 15, 2017
Children whose parents provide them with learning materials like books and toys and engage them in learning activities and meaningful conversations in infancy and toddlerhood are likely to develop early cognitive skills that ...

Precision medicine opens the door to scientific wellness preventive approaches to suicide

August 15, 2017
Researchers have developed a more precise way of diagnosing suicide risk, by developing blood tests that work in everybody, as well as more personalized blood tests for different subtypes of suicidality that they have newly ...

Obesity and depression are entwined, yet scientists don't know why

August 15, 2017
About 15 years ago, Dr. Sue McElroy, a psychiatrist in Mason, Ohio, started noticing a pattern. People came to see her because they were depressed, but they frequently had a more visible ailment as well: They were heavy.

Givers really are happier than takers

August 15, 2017
(HealthDay)—Generosity really is its own reward, with the brain seemingly hardwired for happiness in response to giving, new research suggests.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

gmurphy
not rated yet Oct 21, 2008
very interesting, it demonstrates that music is an innate, rather than learned trait

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.