News Item: Communicative Musicality

Print This Post Print This Post

Mother & Baby Duet:
Instrumental in Social Development

A mother hums to her little boy as she changes him on the shelf in a restroom while he looks with wide-eyed curiosity at the stranger attracted by the sounds.  On the train, another mother sings playfully to her child in a stroller.

All that billing and cooing does much more than entertain and/or soothe an infant.  Recent research strongly suggests that it plays a vital role in preparing children to learn the language, practices and rituals of their cultures.

In a special report on music appearing in Science News, babies were described as coming into the world prepared to engage musically, crying with the same melodic patterns found in their mothers’ conversations.  The singsong nature of motherese, the universal language of babyspeak, takes advantage of that innate ability; adults automatically speak in a higher-pitched and exaggerated manner when addressing infants and toddlers.

One researcher, psychobiologist Colwyn Trevarthen, believes that babies have an active part in this exchange with their mothers, recognizing  when an adult invites them to respond and at times initiating the musical interactions.  In addition to building a foundation for later learning, what Trevarthen has come to call communicative musicality also provides for emotional expression and sharing between parent and child, crossing cultures with only minor variations.

The critical nature of these formative experiences is best appreciated in their breach.  Studies conducted by psychologist Maya Gratier of women diagnosed with depression and/or borderline personality disorder (BPD) demonstrate how a mother’s own inability  to respond to the desperate attempts of her baby to engage musically has negative consequences for the child’s development.

Because of their personal histories of severe childhood abuse and neglect, women with BPD have difficulty sustaining ordinary relationships and controlling their impulses.  They feel empty emotionally, fear abandonment, tend to elicit angry responses from others, and end up in intense, tumultuous relationships.

Ill equipped because of their own early deprivation, these mothers produce sounds devoid of any musical sense when trying to speak motherese.  They utter repetitive, sometimes odd, noises that lack rhythmic flow.  Seemingly unaware of their children’s desire to participate, they create no entry point for it.  Babies of these mothers give up and withdraw or actively demonstrate their distress by becoming fussy and upset.  Although the depressive women in Gratier’s studies could generate more variety in their communications with their infants, they did so in a low, flat voice lacking rhythmic timing.

Flexibility and expressiveness are prerequisites for musical attunement with one’s baby.  These women (and others like them) can give no more than they have received.  Children raised without the benefit of rhythmic relationships miss out on the opportunity to successfully complete a critical stage of development and encounter difficulties in subsequent social situations, starting in preschool.

Research findings like these point to the importance of early intervention for mothers with histories of severe childhood abuse and neglect, perhaps in the form of music lessons for the mother and infant duet.  Not only could it benefit the child, it could also teach the woman a skill she had missed out on learning as a baby.