Singing out loud used to be something I only reserved for when I was alone in the car or in the shower. I have a terrible singing voice, but I both love and appreciate music, so I’ve spent most of my adult life shielding my loved ones from butchered versions of my favorite songs. Despite the fact that I know all of the words to countless tunes, I generally take a seat in the back of the room when people sing karaoke so that they can’t hear me above whoever is holding the microphone. The fact that I married a talented musician only amplifies the embarrassment I feel at the sound of my own voice, and in our 10-year relationship, my husband never heard me sing aloud. That is, until recently. Nowadays, singing is all I do. I sing when I wake up, I sing through meals, I sing during baths, and I sing before bed.
I sing for my son.
As a psychologist, I am not a big believer in the innateness or natural essence of most human abilities. Instead, I believe in the power of learning and the impact of the environment on behavior. But, I can say for sure that I didn’t learn this behavior. I began to sing to my son the very first day I brought him home from the hospital, and I haven’t stopped since. I sing to him without any feedback or encouragement. I sing to him in the middle of the night and during the day. I sing to him when I put him to sleep, and I sing to him when he wakes up. I sang to him as a newborn, and I sing to him now as a 1-year-old. Whether he always liked it or whether he developed a fondness for it over time, I really don’t know. But he loves music, and he loves it when I sing to him, regardless of my cringe-worthy singing voice.
Turns out it’s not just me. Humans’ love of music predates history, and today, music is present in all cultures and mothers from around the world sing to their babies. Lullabies seem to have a particularly universal sound that is easily recognizable whether you’re familiar with them or not. There is even evidence that adults can accurately discriminate between lullabies and other songs in various languages, even in languages that they don’t know.
There is also evidence that babies love to be sung to. Research has shown that mothers change the way they sing when they are singing lullabies to their babies, and adult listeners classify mothers’ singing as more “loving” when they are singing to their babies compared to when they are singing alone. Amazingly, babies respond to this change in their mother’s voice, preferring the way their mothers sing for them to the way their mothers sing for others. Even the way mothers talk to their babies has characteristics that are closer to a song than to speech. And babies love hearing this too: They prefer to listen to motherese or infant-direct speech than to adult-directed speech.
Because of the naturalness about the way babies gravitate toward music, some researchers have compared the way they learn about music to the way they learn language. Indeed, music and language share many qualities—for example, they are both rule-based, and can be used as a form of communication. Also like language, babies learn about music quite early on in life. By 6 months, babies already prefer to listen to consonance—or music that sounds predictable and pleasant—to dissonance—or music that sounds more irregular. They can also determine whether a melody goes up or down in pitch, and can even detect differences between the spaces of different notes.
Early musical experiences seem to have several benefits for babies. Listening to classical music won’t necessarily improve a baby’s IQ—an idea (dubbed “The Mozart Effect”) that became popularized after researchers showed that college students who listened to Mozart before taking an IQ test performed better on specific portions of the test—but musical training at an early age can have a positive impact on various aspects of children’s development. For example, musical training before the age of 7 has been shown to produce increased connections in the motor areas of the brain—areas responsible for movement. Musical training after the age of 7 had no effect on this brain region at all. That means that playing a musical instrument at a young age might prepare the brain for the later coordination needed for that instrument, and that beginning music lessons early in childhood might have long-term benefits for mastery.
Besides boosts in future musical ability, early musical exposure has positive effects in areas that have nothing to do with music. For example, sharing music together at home has been related to increased vocabulary and pro-social skills. Listening to music can also have therapeutic effects on premature babies, as it reduces periods of inconsolable crying and has been shown to improve preemies’ overall health.
The ease with which mothers sing to their babies coupled with babies’ loving responses to their mothers’ songs has led many to believe that there is something natural about the way humans gravitate towards music. A year ago, I probably wouldn’t have believed something like that, but now I’m not so sure. If someone told me I had a terrible singing voice before I had a baby, I would have been mortified, which is probably why I never sang out loud in the first place. Nowadays, negative comments about my singing voice wouldn’t faze me in the least, and they definitely wouldn’t make me stop. Singing is no longer just for me, it’s for him, and it’s for us. Much like our common love of music connects us as a species, listening to music as a family is something that bonds us together, it represents our connection, our affection for each other. And it does feel natural; it feels like the most natural thing in the world—it feels like love.