Music & Life: The Unborn Child

Music & Life

Before you breathed fresh air, felt your first embrace, or saw your mother’s face, you existed in a symphonic amniotic cocoon. Alone in watery darkness, your tiny ears took in the steady pulsing of your mother’s heart, the slow rush of fluid about your head, and the muffled external noises of a world you had not yet seen.

The womb was your first concert hall.

Hearing develops quickly in the uterus. At first the fetus “hears” through vibrations [1]. If you have ever sat in the movie theater and felt the rumble of an onscreen explosion in your stomach, then you understand how sound can send vibrations through the body. Ears form within the first ten weeks of pregnancy, and the unborn baby can hear in the traditional sense by four months [2].

Early Musical Influences

Can you influence your child to love Tchaikovsky, Charlie Parker or even Shakira before the big Birth Day? Is exposing a child to music in the womb helpful or harmful? Can music heard pre-birth affect intelligence, increase music appreciation, and encourage later creativity?

If you pay attention, you will discover your child’s musical tastes. At sixteen weeks of gestation, a loud heavy metal concert can startle your unborn baby. My daughter definitely showed a preference for Latin music and hip hop in-utero, but when I played my drum set seven months pregnant, she kicked until I stopped. Now nearly a year old, my baby girl loves to drum, sings, and tinkers on the keys. She still hates Metallica, though!

Scientific research shows that the unborn child prefers her mother’s voice and can learn through auditory stimulus like music, the human voice, or noise [3]. In countries like Uganda and Japan, singing to the unborn child plays an integral role in motherhood, encouraging the good health of mother and baby [4].

The “Mozart Effect”

The "Mozart Effect" is named for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The ‘Mozart Effect’ is named for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The famous “Mozart Effect” is the name given to the theory that listening to Amadeus Mozart’s music increases neuron pathways in the brain and positively affects intelligence, even before birth. Since the early 1990s when Frances Rauscher and fellow scientists discovered the “Mozart Effect,” the theory has found many detractors. Anecdotal evidence suggests that at the least, Classical Era and Baroque music in-utero can tacitly affect a child’s tendency to play music later in life [4], but whether Mozart’s music increases IQ scores or will get your unborn child into Oxford or Harvard is an entirely different matter! Creating a nurturing sound environment for your unborn child should be the primary goal.

10 Tips For Your Baby’s Musical Nourishment

How can you create a positive audio environment in the womb?

1. Relax and play soothing music.

Whether you enjoy listening to Mozart or Enya, soothing music will relax both you and baby. Find a favorite CD, plug your iPod into speakers, or turn on Pandora. The Simply Noise site provides a free online “noise generator” – the good kind of noise! Hit the “Brown Noise” button and you can listen to soothing ocean waves.

2. Speak in a calm manner.

Although the womb provides a protective environment for your baby, loud shouting will reach your little ones ears – and possibly cause agitation.

3. If the music hurts your ears, then the noise will hurt your child.

Turn down the volume or move to a different room if the music is too loud.

Regularly sing to your baby, and encourage others to do the same

Regularly sing to your baby, and encourage others to do the same

4. Regularly sing to the baby.

Don’t worry if you can’t sing in tune, your baby will appreciate hearing your voice. Encourage other members of the family like grandparents and siblings to sing along. Young infants remember the voices they heard in the womb. If you don’t know any lullabies, you can check out Songs for Teaching. This website provides lyrics and listening examples to familiar lullabies like “Hush Little Baby” and Brahm’s Lullaby.

Keep playing your instrument throughout pregnancy

Keep playing your instrument throughout pregnancy

5. Encourage your partner and family to sing and talk to your child.

Your unborn child may not see excited relatives, but they will recognize the familiar voices as newborns.

6. If you play an instrument, practice throughout the pregnancy.

I enjoyed finding out how playing the congas soothed my unborn daughter. If you do not play an instrument, you can encourage a friend or family member to serenade you and your baby instead.

7. Sense your child’s reaction to the auditory stimuli.

Does he kick more when you turn on the radio? Does she fall asleep when you play guitar? Be aware of how your sound environment affects your child.

8. Only occasionally use headphones on your belly.

Studies have shown mixed results for the effects of direct music on the womb. Not enough scientific research has proven that headphones either help or harm the baby. Err on the safe side and save headphone use for the occasional soft lullaby.

9. Explore different musical styles from other cultures.

Expand your musical palette and your baby’s, by adding music from other cultures. For example, you may want to play reggae, Javanese gamelan, or traditional Celtic music. Listen to contemporary classical music or try out the world music offerings of Stumbleaudio.

Take the time to just enjoy silence with your unborn child

Take the time to just enjoy silence with your unborn child

10. Enjoy silence.

Sometimes lying perfectly still will give you the opportunity to truly sense the child within you. As you lie with your eyes closed, try to imagine your child. Sense each movement and enjoy these precious quiet moments. Soon silence will be a distant memory!


These musical moments will soon be replaced with the hustle and bustle of a newborn. Remember to cherish each musical moment with your unborn child.

Share your own musical experiences in the comments below. What worked for your unborn child? What types of music did you play? Do you think your musical choices affect your infant or toddler? We want to hear what you have to say.

Sources

  1. James, K. David, “Fetal Learning: a Critical Review”. Infant and Child Development. 19: 45-54 (2010). Published online in Wiley InterScience. Accessed online 9/2010.
  2. Mayo Clinic, “Pregnancy Week by Week”. MayoClinic.com. Published online. Accessed online 9/2010.
  3. Harris, Maureen. Music and the Young Mind. Rowman & Littlefield Education: Lanham, NY, Toronto, Plymouth (UK). 2009.
  4. Verny, Thomas R. and Pamela Weintraub. Pre-Parenting: Nurturing Your Child from Conception. Simon & Schuster: NY, London, Toronto, Sydney, Singapore. 2002.
  5. Lerch, Donna. “The Mozart Effect: A Closer Look.” University of Illinois. 2000. Accessed online 9/2010.

Series Information
This is part 2 of 24 in the Music & Life series.

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  • Ian Bui

    Four months before our son was born we started playing to him one movement from Bach’s Cello Suite, twice a day at regularly scheduled interval (11am & 3pm). We used a special speaker set that wraps around the Mother’s belly and kept the volume at a moderately low level. Each session would last only seven minutes or so. We do not know if this activity had any effects on his intelligence or musical abilities, but even before he could talk he exhibited a remarkable sense of pitch. He’s now six years old and has been taking piano lessons for two years. His piano teacher recently told me that she has never had a student his age who has such a natural feel for dynamics. We probably will never know for sure whether hearing Bach (or any other type of music) helped, but we believe it cannot hurt if done sensibly and in moderation.