New research compares speech and music in babies’ environment

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First controlled study on speech vs. music yields surprises

I-LABS scientists sought a snapshot of infants’ auditory environments. Unlike previous research which documents the amount of speech and language that infants hear, no previous work looked at the amount of music infants hear. Results showed that infants hear more spoken language than music, with the gap widening as the babies get older.

Researchers analyzed a dataset of daylong audio recordings collected in English-learning infants’ home environments at ages 6, 10, 14, 18 and 24 months. At every age, infants were exposed to more music from an electronic device than an in-person source. This pattern was reversed for speech. While the percentage of speech intended for infants significantly increased with time, it stayed the same for music.

“We’re shocked at how little music is in these recordings,” said Christina Zhao, who is also the director of the Lab for Early Auditory Perception (LEAP), housed in the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS). “The majority of music is not intended for babies. We can imagine these are songs streaming in the background or on the radio in the car. A lot of it is just ambient.”

The research is published in Developmental Science. Zhao and co-author Naja Ferjan Ramírez are I-LABS faculty.

Read a related story from UW News.