Children are Hard-Wired to Learn Music

Written by Marko Ahtisaari & Ketki Karanam

For the first year of life, children are citizens of the world, ready and able to learn any language. In terms of music ... children are also musicians of the world

Studies have shown that already at birth, and even before it, children possess many skills needed to process music. Mere exposure to music influences the development of auditory processing and gradually makes us accustomed to the specific features of the music of the culture we live in. Children are especially quick learners and already within one year learn to process characteristics of the music playing in their surrounding environment.

Let’s start from the very beginning. Or actually, let’s start before the beginning. Research has shown that one does not need to have been born yet to listen to music and be influenced by it. In a recent study (1), researchers found that fetuses whose mothers listened to “Twinkle twinkle little star” on repeat during the third trimester learned the song through this in utero exposure. How can one tell that a newborn baby has learned something in the womb? Studying learning in newborns is tricky, because unlike with adults, newborns cannot tell us whether they recognize or remember something or not. Luckily, a brain response can be recorded even while the subject is sleeping that tells us whether the brain has formed a memory pattern of, for instance, a certain musical piece. In the study in question, the infants listened to a slightly modified version of "Twinkle twinkle...", and the brains of the infants who were exposed to the original piece during the third trimester reacted strongly to the modified melody. This showed that the fetus’s brain had formed a memory trace of the song in the womb and was later able to pick up slight anomalies in the song. Similar in utero learning of speech sounds has also been demonstrated (2), and of course, this learning-by-exposure continues after birth. 

Even though this exposure to culture-specific musical characteristics starts already before birth, young children are still very open and able process different kinds of musical structures even better than adults.

So what happens when infants continue to be exposed to music during childhood? Although there are some culturally universal musical phenomena, musical systems typically differ across cultures, for example, in the way pitch and rhythm is typically organized. Long-term exposure to the music of one’s culture shapes the way the brain processes music. As a result, adults are especially sensitive to the typical aspects of the music of their culture, and are poor at processing music that does not conform to the rules of their musical culture. This is probably the reason why the majority of people prefer to listen to music that adheres to familiar rules - which may explain why stuff like this rather than this tops the album charts. As an example pertaining to this phenomenon, a study showed that North American adults have a hard time differentiating melodies that are based on unfamiliar musical scales (3) or rhythms (4) that are atypical of Western music, whereas adults who have grown up listening to such melodies and rhythm can easily accomplish these tasks. Even though this exposure to culture-specific musical characteristics starts already before birth, young children are still very open and able process different kinds of musical structures even better than adults. In the aforementioned studies, infants were equally good at processing the melodies and rhythms irrespective of whether or not they conformed to the rules Western music.

When does this change? When do we become fixed on the set of musical rules typical for our own culture? Research suggests that around the age of one year, children start to become more and more selective and it gets harder for the child to process subtle musical characteristics that are not typical for the music they have been exposed to (5). Similar development happens with language learning. As researcher Patricia Kuhl has beautifully put it, for the first year of life, children are “citizens of the world”, ready and able to learn any language. In terms of music, one could say that during year one, children are also “musicians of the world”. An intriguing question is whether we could maintain this openness and ability to learn a more varied set of musical or language systems by exposing ourselves to more diverse music and language.

So what exactly happens when children learn and become attached to the musical system of their native culture? In research, this process is called musical enculturation. Enculturation does not require active music-making but happens through mere exposure. It is the development of specialization for the particular musical structures (like rhythm, pitch) of the musical system used in the culture that the child grows up in (6). Enculturation has been investigated in longitudinal studies tracking the development of auditory processing in infants. For instance, a study (6) exposed 4-month old infants to a melody played either with a guitar or a marimba for a total of 160 minutes in one week. After the exposure, brain responses to guitar timbre were larger in the group of babies only exposed to the guitar melody and correspondingly responses to the marimba timbre were larger in the group exposed to the marimba melody. Therefore, in only one week, the babies learned the timbre of the instrument they were exposed to and processed it more efficiently than other timbres!

Even though just being exposed to musical sounds may be enough to result in learning and accompanying changes of brain function, it is possible that active music-making enhances this learning. In a study (7), 6-month-old infants were randomly assigned to 6 months of either active or passive music groups. In the active group, children and their parents took part in classes with singing, playing percussion instruments, and learning lullabies and playsongs. The passive classes consisted of listening to ‘Baby Einstein’ music records while engaging in play activities. The infants who took part in the active music lessons showed larger and earlier responses to the tones that they were exposed to than the group of infants who took part in the passive music listening group. In addition, the infants who took part in the active classes showed more behavior indicative of positive parent–infant social interaction than the infants who took part in passive classes. The researchers conclude that active music participation results in earlier enculturation to pitch structure, and also advanced development of social skills. This sounds promising, but more research is needed to confirm the results.

... infants who took part in the active classes showed more behavior indicative of positive parent–infant social interaction than the infants who took part in passive classes.

In summary, by mere exposure, infants quickly learn the characteristics of the music system of the culture they live in. This learning is reflected in rapid changes in brain function related to sound processing. As any parent knows, the learning rate during infancy is staggering. Babies are very adept at picking up information from the environment and learning new skills. It seems that music as a part of the environment is a signal that infants are wired to process and learn. It is possible that enculturation to music is enhanced when infants actively “make music”, and it also seems that active music-making with infants may facilitate development of social skills. But more on the effects of music training, singing to children and other informal musical activities on childhood development in a future post!


1. Partanen, E., Kujala, T., Tervaniemi, M., & Huotilainen, M. (2013). Prenatal music exposure induces long-term neural effects.

2. Partanen, E., Kujala, T., Näätänen, R., Liitola, A., Sambeth, A., & Huotilainen, M. (2013). Learning-induced neural plasticity of speech processing before birth.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(37), 15145-15150.

3. Lynch, M. P., Eilers, R. E., Oller, D. K., & Urbano, R. C. (1990). Innateness, experience, and music perception. Psychological Science, 1(4), 272-276.

4. Hannon, E. E., & Trehub, S. E. (2005). Metrical categories in infancy and adulthood. Psychological Science, 16(1), 48-55.

5. Hannon, E. E., & Trehub, S. E. (2005). Tuning in to musical rhythms: Infants learn more readily than adults. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102(35), 12639-12643.

6. Trainor, L. J., Lee, K., & Bosnyak, D. J. (2011). Cortical plasticity in 4-month-old infants: specific effects of experience with musical timbres. Brain topography,24(3-4), 192-203.

7. Trainor, L. J., Marie, C., Gerry, D., Whiskin, E., & Unrau, A. (2012). Becoming musically enculturated: effects of music classes for infants on brain and behavior. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1252(1), 129-138.