Do unborn babies prefer Mozart or the YMCA?

5 July 2018

Even in the womb, babies have musical preferences. Illustration: Elena Garcia

And they like Mickey Mouse

In 2015, the Institut Marquès in Barcelona did pioneering research into the ability of unborn babies to listen and respond to music.

They found that while babies did not respond to music played through headphones on the mother's stomach, when it was transmitted intravaginally, they responded by moving their mouth and tongue, as if they were trying to speak or sing.

Reaching the unborn 

Amazingly, they were able to prove that a baby can detect sound at just 16 weeks gestation, when it measures 11 cm (until then, medical literature could only confirm a functioning auditory system from week 26). 

The device the researchers developed, the BabyPod, is now sold commercially and used by mothers to bond with their unborn babies, and the company even held a concert for the unborn using it! 

Inbuilt good taste

Now, the researchers want to know what music the unborn prefer to hear. In June, the Institut published a new study, where they studied mouth and tongue movements of 300 fetuses between 18 and 38 weeks of gestationexposed to 15 different songs of three different music genres: classical, traditional, and pop-rock. 

For context, the mouth and tongue movements studied are only spontaneously produced from 3-5% of babies in the second and third trimesters. The music genre causing the highest percentage of babies moving their mouth was classical music (84%), followed by traditional music (79%), and finally pop rock music (59%). Once the babies are able to stick out their tongues (protrusion), classical musicis again their favourite music genre with 35%, followed bytraditional music (20%) and pop-rock (15%).

But not something like this

However, there were some interesting variations. While pop-rock generally stimulated babies the least, 'Bohemian Rhapsody' by Queen and the 'YMCA' by the Village People both got a mouth movement score of 90%! Adele's 'Someone like you' and Shakira's 'Waka Waka' were both much less popular, with 60% and 50%. 

And while traditional music did well (perhaps because it channels the fact that "music is a form of ancestral communication between humans"), a Spanish Christmas Carol (91%) was much more popular than the Mexican 'Rancheras'. In fact, the Christmas carol tied for first place with Mozart's 'A little night music'. 

Learning in the womb

In one final experiment, it was discovered that babies significantly prefer the high-pitched voice of Mickey Mouse to that of a human they don't know - perhaps even the tiniest of children know that strangers are not safe, but Mickey is! 

The researchers believe that music creates a response which manifests as vocalisation movements, as it activates the brain circuits that stimulate language and communication. In other words, learning begins in utero.

So, from 16 weeks gestation, babies can hear music, respond to and learn from it, and even prefer Mozart to Adele. The unborn are amazing! 

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