Babies love live music, new study finds, showing significant engagement
Infants watching live musical performances show significantly more interest and engagement than those listening to or watching an identical recording of the show, researchers from the University of Toronto have found.
As well as the music itself, babies watching live performances experienced the interactions of the musicians with the audience, and the social experience of being part of a crowd. The babies’ heart rates even synchronised with one another, suggesting a shared experience which can be felt on a basal level.
“Their heart rates were speeding up and slowing down in a similar fashion to other babies watching the show,” said Assistant Professor Laura Cirelli.
“Those babies were dealing with all these distractions in the concert hall, but still had these uninterrupted bursts of attention.”
Recalling her live observations, Associate Professor Cirelli noticed moments during the performance when a calm would sweep over the babies, and other times when a change in pitch or vocal riff would excite them all.
For the study, researchers examined 120 babies aged six to 14 months as they watched a children’s opera performed at a concert hall that doubles as a research facility at McMaster University (61 babies watched in person, while the other 59 watched a recorded version).
Researchers meticulously broadcast the recording so that the performers were at the same size, distance and volume as the live version. The babies’ responses were tracked through heart monitors and tablets mounted on the backs of concert seats. Later, student research assistants combed through the footage to note when babies looked at the stage and when they looked away.
The live performance captured the babies’ attention for 72 per cent of the 12-minute show while the recording held their attention for 54 per cent of the time. The live show also had infants continuously watching for longer bouts of time.
She says this may offer insights into why humans are hardwired to consume music and attend live shows.
“If there’s something happening that we collectively are engaging with, we’re also connecting with each other. It speaks to the shared experience,” explained Assistant Professor Cirelli.
“The implication is that this is not necessarily specific to this one performance. If there’s these moments that capture us, then we are being captured together.”
“We consistently find that music can be a highly social and emotional context within which infants can foster connections to their caregivers, other family members and even new acquaintances,” she says. “This audience study shows that even in a community context, infants are engaging with the music and connecting to their fellow audience members.”
Despite the findings, researchers caution that babies will still find virtual performances interesting.
After the onset of the pandemic, the researchers virtually studied one group of babies as they watched the same recording in their homes over Zoom. Those babies paid about as much attention as the ones who attended the live show – watching about 64 per cent on average – but they were more likely to become distracted and have shorter bursts of attention.
“Even little babies who may or may not have experienced music in a community context before are already engaging more when it’s delivered this way,” added Associate Professor Cirelli.
“That’s one question we have as music cognition researchers: What is it about the live experience that’s worth it? Why would people go if there’s not something fundamental about that live music experience that’s above and beyond listening to music by yourself?”
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