Music for Babies: Early Listening Experiences

Illustration of Baby with Musical Instruments - Music for Babies

‘Music for Babies’ is a series of short recordings you can play for your baby to encourage their musical development.


The recordings sound different from typical Western music for babies because they feature a broader range of instruments, harmonies, and rhythms.

Music for Babies? Or Music for Parents?

Most music for babies sounds like what we as parents think of as ‘baby appropriate’ music, such as lullabies, soft classical music, and sing-a-long nursery rhymes. I chose the music in these recordings instead using these criteria:

  • Almost all of this music has no words or lyrics. This encourages your baby to listen to the music’s timbre, melodies, and harmonies.
  • This music is from a variety of different cultures and styles. This exposes your baby to a broad range of sounds and rhythms.
  • This music has only tonal instruments and no percussion. Music researchers have found children under 5 years old have a preference for instrument sounds like violin or saxophone vs percussion sounds like drums (Moog 1976).
  • This music is edited and ordered to keep babies interested and paying attention! Or at least to keep some parts of their brain paying attention. The music is edited into short excerpts for short attention spans. These short excerpts are then ordered in alternating patterns to engage babies’ memories and prompt them to compare the excerpts.

Here are the two more groupings of music, and you can read below about why they’re labeled ‘Group 2: Session 1’ etc.:



How to Listen to Music with Your Baby

I recommend safely setting up a stereo and playing one short playlist at a time, at very moderate to low volume, during moments like the start of naptime, or in moments relatively free from distraction when you have a ‘captive audience’.

The music playlists in this post are purposefully short so sleeping babies aren’t subjected to endless music.

Never use headphones on your baby because they can cause hearing even at low volumes.

Your baby will benefit from repetition and variety. With the playlists in this post try repeating the same playlist several days in a row, before switching to the second ‘session’ from the same group (more details on sessions and groups below). Eventually when your baby has listened to all the recordings repeatedly, vary them at will.

Note: Mixcloud, the service streaming the music, also has a free app for iPhone and Android. Be aware when listening to Mixcloud on their website, the service auto-adds suggested music and will continue playing past the end of whatever playlist you initially started — to avoid playing music you didn’t select, click “Next” on the player, hover over each suggested playlist and click the “X”es in the right-hand corner to close.

Choosing the Music

Each recording is made up of short musical excerpts chosen from my home collection. Choosing the music I followed these general guidelines:

Variety

Excerpts include a variety of styles, tonalities, meters, and timbres.

Brevity

Excerpts are limited to ~30 seconds each, in an attempt to stimulate and hold infants’ short attention spans with frequent changes.

Instrumental

Selections are performed on instruments only, without lyrics to distract from the music’s tonal content. The few exceptions are sung in languages other than English.

Simple Arrangements

Arrangements are limited to one or two instruments, without percussion, to encourage focus on the qualities of the featured performance.

Completeness

As often as possible, I edited the excerpts to stand alone as complete phrases and musical ideas with natural resolutions.

After choosing and editing over 60 excerpts, I narrowed the final selections down to 38 that best met these criteria.

Ordering the Music

Instead of playing all the excerpts from start to finish, I arranged them in repeating sets of two; for example:

Order Track
1 Children’s Play Song / Bill Evans
2 Lagrima / Antonio Gonzales
3 [repeat] Children’s Play Song / Bill Evans
4 [repeat] Lagrima / Antonio Gonzales
5 Var. 10 Fughetta a 1 Clav. / Caitrin Finch
6 Portrait of Tracy / Jaco Pastorious
7 [repeat] Var. 10 Fughetta a 1 Clav. / Caitrin Finch
8 [repeat] Portrait of Tracy / Jaco Pastorious
9 etc…

This repeating ‘ABAB’ pattern increases exposure to each excerpt, and may better stimulate memory, pattern recognition, and comparison between selections.

Groups and Sessions

Playing back all 38 excerpts, repeating in pairs, lasts 40 minutes. To create shorter listening sessions, I divided the excerpts into three smaller groups, and created playlists from each group.

For variety, from each group I created two different playlists, varying the track order. All the excerpts in a group make an appearance once within both of the group’s playlists, but they will appear in a different order and will be paired in different ‘ABAB’ sets.

This organization resulted in the six listening sessions above (3 groups x 2 playlists each), with each session lasting ~13 to 16 minutes.

Improvements

This last section uses musical jargon with few elaborations, and is intended for music nerds.

The variety of excerpts used in these recordings, and the scope of their musical qualities, is limited to the music available in my personal collection. With a composer and a recording budget, I can envision some exciting improvements, including:

  • Composing musical excerpts that isolate and emphasize a single musical dimension, for example:

    • Playing rhythmic ‘melodies’ that use only a single pitch, emphasizing rhythm content.
    • Repeating the same melody played at different tempos.
    • Repeating the same melody played by different instruments (emphasizing timbre).
    • Transposing melodies to different keys (emphasizing relative interval sequences).
    • Adapting melodies to different beat groupings, e.g. a march feel vs. a waltz (emphasizing meter).
  • Composing excerpts that represent a more thorough and systematic review of tonalities, meters, rhythmic divisions, interval patterns, etc.
  • More closely aligning musical content with research on infant cognition and musical development, for example:

    • These studies indicate infants are capable of perceiving melodies using both absolute and relative pitch cues: Saffran & Griepentrog 2001 / Platinga & Trainor 2005.

      Saffran & Griepentrog suggest infants may recruit either absolute or relative processing strategies based on the structure of the melodic stimuli, with atonal melodies encouraging absolute pitch processing, and tonal melodies encouraging relative pitch processing.

      Melodies could be composed following both traditional structures (e.g. discrete tonalities and diatonic harmonies), and atonal structures, to encourage stimulation of both processing strategies.

Improvements aside, I loved putting together this music and I hope you and your baby enjoy listening to it!