Can music affect fetal brain development? If so, what musical composers, genre, or style will make my baby smarter, more creative, more sociable, or more…better?
These questions are certainly interesting ones for expectant couples. However, despite a rather suspect study suggesting that Mozart will help your baby’s brain grow, the jury is out. The study in question was associated with a Baby-Mozart brain-enhancing product that putatively noted that the particular structure of, say, a Mozart string quartet offered more “formative” stimulation than other genres or even other classical composers like Bach or Beethoven. Such claims have been soundly debunked. But that does not mean that prenatal music or concert-going does not have benefits – its simply difficult to prove the case!
In theory, prenatal sonic stimulation may yield some positive results, including many of the same benefits that have been more scientifically-established by the prenatal consumption of Omega-3 fatty acids. Such purported benefits include enhanced attention spans, improved sleep patterns, increased cognitive development, and sharper language skills. Unfortunately, various products that make affirmative claims about the impact of music on fetal development during pregnancy have scant evidence (mostly anecdotal) upon which to base such claims. The fact is, there may be too many variables to sort out the impact of song and sound, including diet, general health, the consumption of various foods containing Omega-3s or other vital nutrients, or even ambient sound – the pitch and tenor of voices, dialogue, and daily life. And what of reading to your unborn baby? In effect, fetal development many be too complex, too multi-faceted to ever determine if music – let alone a specific style or genre – can affect your baby in a certain way. A few more cautious doctors suggest that an unborn baby’s physical reactions (heart rates, movements) to music may stem from discomfort rather than comfort.
That said, there certainly is an intuitive sense that sonic stimulation – at reasonable volumes – sure can’t hurt. However, choice of music may offer something to contemplate, especially if you consider that plants apparently flourish – and grow toward – calmer classical music, while actively avoiding blaring heavy metal. A number of studies have contrasted the effects of different forms of music on plant growth, and classical forms always seems to win out when it comes to a plant’s preferred choice of musical style. In addition, animal studies indicate that exposure to “chaotic” or “atonal” music alters brain structure in a negative way. In the case of classical vs. rock music, the issue may be less the notational/chordal structure of the musical composition than the mediated difference between a cello or an electric guitar run through a “tube-screamer”.
The case of atonal music brings up a more interesting question: Is it the non-repetitive structure, complex rhythms, or non-traditional scales associated with discordant music that is the issue here? Or was “chaotic music” played too loudly or on abrasive or “prepared” instruments – via distorted guitars or via quarter-tone pianos (ala Charles Ives) or via 12-Tone serial operas (ala Schoenberg)? It’s unlikely that scientists researching in this area took into consideration that difference between, say, Schoenberg’s atonal and serial phases. Moreover, this does not answer the question whether a baby prefers calmer, more sonorous or spatial classical music to more intricate or energetic works of the same genre.
Which of course begs other questions: Is the architectonic majesty of classical music, the works of a Bach or Mozart, the possible key to supporting sound fetal development? Will Shostakovich’s frequent minor keys and heavy themes depress my baby? Will Stockhausen freak him or her out? Will Morton Feldman put baby to sleep? And how about jazz, rock or techno? What’s good for the baby’s brain?!?
Despite plant and animal research, experts working with humans are reluctant to make any positive correlation between music and smarter babies. While learning piano may support a child’s “spatial reasoning and math skills”, experts are not willing to generalize such conclusions to fetal development during pregnancy. At best, doctor’s surmise there may be a positive connection, but only based on a web of anecdotal evidence. Other researchers, however, do indicate that unborn babies do respond to various rhythmic qualities of music, based on fetal breathing patterns that conform to musical rhythm, suggesting music does have a “sympathetic” effect.
At any rate, there are tons of musical kits and products out there promising to “Build Your Baby’s Brain”, calm your baby with “Healing Lullabies”, or tone the synapses with sonic “Prenatal Education Systems”. And certainly, you do not need to buy a “kit” to surround your child with the sounds of Bach, Beethoven, or Chopin. Ambient sounds from your stereo will reach your baby, and some women elect to put headphones around their stomachs for a more direct approach. In either case, doctors do advise avoiding loud music that might startle or possibly hurt the baby – as well as avoiding overly long sessions that may “overstimulate”. In short, because the jury is still out on how music affects fetal development, experts suggest moderation and mild volume when it comes to sonic stimulation. Perhaps the best suggestion is to simply relax and enjoy music the way you normally do – and chances are your baby will relax along with you.