A precious moment in every parent’s life is when their infant responds to a particular rhythm and moves her limbs to the beat. Parents are on cloud nine. Yes, very young children are sensitive to musical rhythm, and this builds social engagement and connection with them. According to a study, engaging infants with a song provides a ready-made means for supporting social development and interaction.
The findings of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show that baby eye-looking becomes synchronised or entrained to the social cues of the carers at sub-second timeframes when the rhythm of the carers’ singing is present.
112 infants between the ages of 2 and 6 months were enrolled by researchers from the Marcus Autism Centre, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory University School of Medicine, and Vanderbilt University Medical Centre (VUMC).
Infants are two times more likely to maintain eye contact with the singer
The study monitored newborns’ eye movements moment by moment and found that infant eye movements become synchronized or entrained to the carers’ social cues at sub-second timeframes when the beat of the carers’ singing is present.
Infants were twice as likely to glance into the singers’ eyes that were time-locked to the musical beat than would be expected by chance as early as 2 months of age when they first begin interacting with people.
Babbling is a sophisticated rhythmic and communicative behaviour that newborns begin to develop at the age of six months, at which point they are highly experienced in face-to-face musical activities and are more likely than not to glance to the singers’ eyes that are timed to the musical beats.
Singing to infants is a rich and meaningful social information
“Singing to infants seems like such a simple act, but it is full of rich and meaningful social information,” said study lead author Miriam Lense, PhD, assistant professor of Otolaryngology and co-director of the Music Cognition Lab at VUMC. “Here we show that when caregivers sing to their infants, they are intuitively structuring their behaviour to support the caregiver-infant social bond and infant social learning.”
While the infants watched films of individuals singing to them, the researchers employed eye-tracking technology to track every eye movement.
“For this study, we used videos of singing rather than live singing to ensure that any change in infant-looking behaviour was due to the infant, and not the singer adjusting to the infant,” Lense said. “Infants could look anywhere while watching the videos but we found that their looking behaviour was not random.”
“Critically, the predictable rhythm of singing is essential for this entrained social interaction. When we experimentally manipulate the singing so that it no longer has a predictable rhythm, entrainment is disrupted and infants no longer successfully synchronize their eye-looking to the caregivers’ social cues,” she added.
Intuitive as caregiver singing alters infants’ experiences
Another set of 6-month-old babies who watched the original singing films as well as videos that had been edited to be jittered so that their rhythms were unpredictable confirmed the researchers’ findings.
When the song had a predictable rhythm, the newborns once again showed entrained looks in the original movies. However, when the expected pattern had been broken, this effect vanished.
“This is important because it reveals a remarkable physical coupling between caregiver behaviour and infant experience,” said Warren Jones, PhD, the study’s senior author, and Nien Distinguished Chair in Autism at Emory University School of Medicine. “Without conscious awareness, something as simple and intuitive as caregiver singing sets in motion a whole cascade of behaviours that alters infants’ experiences.”
Rhythmic predictability is an integral mechanism for infant social development
“Although what a caregiver expresses is important, when and how they express social cues is particularly critical for infant-caregiver communication,” Lense added. “Rhythmic predictability — a universal feature of song — is an integral mechanism for structuring social interactions and supporting infant social development.”
The study, according to Reyna Gordon, PhD, associate professor of otolaryngology and co-director of the Music Cognition Lab at VUMC, shows that creating music is important for early socio-emotional development and is not just for enjoyment.
“It is remarkable that these infants are basically tracking the beat of music with their eyes by modulating their eye contact with the singer’s eyes around the beat (or pulse) of singing,” said Gordon, who was not involved in the study.
Very young children are sensitive to musical rhythm
“These findings represent a major step forward in our understanding of the extent to which very young children are sensitive to musical rhythm, suggesting that innateness for music is intertwined with early social engagement,” she added.
The National Institutes of Health, including the National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Health, the National Institute for Deafness and Communication Disorders, and the GRAMMY Foundation, provided funding for the study.
As part of the Sound Health Initiative, a collaboration between the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, Lense said her team has now expanded the research to include synchronization in autism.
Materials provided by Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Original written by Craig Boerner. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Miriam D. Lense, Sarah Shultz, Corine Astésano, Warren Jones. Music of infant-directed singing entrains infants’ social visual behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2022; 119 (45) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2116967119
Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “Sensitivity to musical rhythm supports social development in infants.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 November 2022. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/11/221102123611.htm>.
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