The University of Texas at Austin
  • Infants more tuned in than adults

    By Tim Green
    Tim Green
    Published: Nov. 5, 2010
    Music Professor Eugenia Costa-GiomiPhoto: Marsha Miller

    This article originally appeared in the Further Findings research blog.

    Music Professor Eugenia Costa-Giomi gave me a test that she gives to infants as part of her musical cognition research.

    Infants pass the test. I failed.

    The consolation was that most other adults fail, too.

    The test is to watch and listen to alternating videos of two young women singing two different melodies, which are Bach minuets. In the first set of videos, one woman sings one melody and the other sings another melody.

    In the second set, things are switched. One woman will sing the other woman’s melody in her own voice and one woman’s voice will be dubbed when the other woman is on screen.

    “Babies can tell the difference,” said Costa-Giomi, a professor of music and human learning in the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music.

    “Listen to this again,” she said as she replayed a video. “This girl is singing with the other girl’s voice. Babies can tell that. Adults miss it. So you were like all adults.”

    The test I took was an abbreviated version of the one Costa-Giomi gives as part of her research. She’s conducting a series of studies to find out how infants discriminate and categorize melodies and timbres.

    “What is interesting about these studies is that they show infants’ sensitivity to all the characteristics of the music. They could detect the mismatch of face to song as well as of face to voice,” she said. “So they are paying attention to everything. As adults, perhaps we are so tuned in to detecting changes in content that we miss the changes in voices.”

    Costa-Giomi presented a paper about the face-and-voice research at the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in August in Seattle.

    The spine that ties together Costa-Giomi’s research is music categorization, how infants recognize and react to musical sounds that are similar but not the same.

    “We haven’t studied that so much,” she said about categorization. “We know a lot about discrimination, infants’ ability to tell things apart. But we haven’t studied so much infants’ ability to perceive the similarity between things.

    “To go around the world and perceive the similarities among events and objects is really crucial,” she said. “Detecting just differences would be a very inefficient way to learn about the world. After all, most things are somehow different from each other. We need to perceive similarities.”

    In the study that led to the face-and-voice study, Costa-Giomi found infants were not so good at categorizing melodies. But they were really good at discriminating instruments and melodies.

    “They would hear melodies played by a flute or a clarinet, for example,” she said. “And they could detect the difference between the instruments and they could detect the difference between the melodies as well.”

    She did a similar study, but this time women were singing the melodies. The infants heard the songs but didn’t see the singers

    “They did not discriminate the voices of the women, even though they had discriminated the instrument before,” Costa-Giomi said. “That was very puzzling to us because we know that infants are very sensitive to timbre. We know that they can recognize their mother’s voice hours after they are born, for example. In fact, our own studies have shown that infants can discriminate their mother’s singing voice from that of another woman.”

    How seeing the singer helps infants identify and discriminate voices is one of the questions she intends to research further.

    “The ultimate purpose of these studies is to understand how infants learn about music,” she said.

    Her research with infants is conducted in the Children’s Development Laboratory in the Seay Building where the university’s Department of Psychology is housed.

    The building and the children’s lab opened just as Costa-Giomi arrived at the university in 2002. She worked with Leslie Cohen, a professor of psychology, until he retired last spring.

    During the experiments, the infants are seated on their mothers’ laps as they are exposed to the videos and sound. Their attention is attracted to the screen by something colorful like a sunflower. Music plays when they look and stops when they look away. This has proven to be an effective method of measuring infants’ reactions to stimuli, Costa-Giomi said. But it works only up to a certain age.

    Once they learn to walk, she said with a laugh, “they are not going sit on their mother’s lap and look at a sunflower for five minutes. They are going to jump out, open the door and leave.”

    Watch the videos used during the test.

    • Quote 2
      Tom said on March 13, 2011 at 4:54 p.m.
      This is really amazing. My daughter is 11 now. Trying to think back when we she was really young and we were watching/listening to music types of videos etc with her. She was definitely very focused. I am a musician and she was exposed to lots of various types of music very early. I have musicians going back several generations on both sides. My two brothers & I were all exposed to music at a very early age.
    • Quote 2
      Mentoring Basics: Tuning in, Infant-style | Mentoring and Recovery said on Nov. 22, 2010 at 8:10 a.m.
      [...] recently read a fascinating article that recounts cognitive research in infants using music. The gist of the research findings is that [...]
    • Quote 2
      Dr Bill R 72 said on Nov. 11, 2010 at 8:31 p.m.
      This is a truly fascinating bit of science that I have tried to share with the most elite scientific and musical cognescenti up here in the center of effete-northeastern-snobland (Princeton).
    • Quote 2
      Laura Havlick said on Nov. 11, 2010 at 9:03 a.m.
      I love to hear about this -- about the ability of children to detect things we would typically become habituated to or tune out, and from the comment: how singing and reading to a child early on creates a special relationship for them with the music and stories which can comfort them, etc., in later life. I grew up with my mother listening to classical music at home. Now that she is gone, I still like to listen to classical music and it's as if she's still with me -- a comforting and peaceful presence.
    • Quote 2
      Jerzy Vohlkott said on Nov. 11, 2010 at 6:58 a.m.
      Next time send someone who got through at least a couple of weeks in his physics for poets course. It would have been interesting to hear how the researchers detected the claimed traits among infants. Turning to look at a screen doesn't say much.
    • Quote 2
      Jerry said on Nov. 9, 2010 at 7:52 a.m.
      This is a great post... I can remember my wife and I singing and reading to both of our children while they were still in the womb. We were young and while some thought we were nuts, we felt like it was a way to connect early with our children. If it had other positive affects, well, that was great too. As it turned out, both of our children as infants were often comforted when they heard classical music or soothing tones (if you will). If they were crying, we'd often play soothing music while holding them and it was if they were listening on a different level than what we were hearing. Call me crazy but it was if they "connected". Were our efforts prior to their birth responsible for this? I couldn't tell you. I do know that both of our children are very musically talented as well as artistic. I do believe there's a strong connection. My son is now sixteen, plays piano and can bring you to tears with it. He's advancing quickly on guitar as well. When he reads or does school projects (we are homeschoolers) he often listens to Classical or Jazz music. It's like music is truly "in his veins". His sister (now 12) is the same way. She can't walk by a piano without playing intros to some of the classics. She also likes listening to the same type of music she has always been around. It amazes me. I guess this should be a lesson to new parents... Fill your child with comforting music as their minds develop. It may serve them (and you) well throughout their lives. Jerry
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