While researching my piece yesterday on ScienceNow (“Babies learn to recognize words in the womb”), Eino Partanen mentioned an earlier study on fetal learning that showed that babies could recognize a melody they had heard in utero.
Are you ready? The year was 1988, and the melody was this one, played daily across Australia (as well as the UK, where the study was done):
The researchers published their very small study with the title “Fetal ‘Soap’ Addiction.” They noted that babies whose mothers had watched the soap seemed to respond to the tune: two stopped crying when they heard the theme song, and six out of seven became “quiet alert”
upon hearing it. (That is the state of alertness known better as “awake and not crying.” It is rare in newborns.) The control babies couldn’t care less; the four that were crying kept on crying, and only two of the eight were quiet alert.It may be small and not super rigorous, but the field of fetal learning has confirmed the basic idea. Fetuses can hear speech and music in the last few months of pregnancy, at the same time sound-processing circuits are being formed in the brain. Yesterday’s paper is the latest finding: newborns aren’t just generally recognizing voices or melodies, but can make out individual syllables and pitch changes that may figure into language learning.