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Babies prefer listening to live music than to a recording of the same performance

A fascinating new study reveals that even babies can appreciate the energy of live music performances. They show significantly higher engagement during a live baby opera than when watching a recorded version of the same event.

When babies watch a live performance, their heartbeats seem to dance along in a unique rhythm. “Their heart rates were speeding up and slowing down in a similar fashion to other babies watching the show,” says Laura Cirelli. She is an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Despite the hustle and bustle around them in the concert hall, these infants had moments of undisturbed focus and attention. Interestingly, the researchers discovered that the infants weren’t just responding to the music, but also to the sense of being part of a crowd.

Why adults and babies are drawn to live music

They witnessed moments when the babies would all calm down simultaneously. Also, they noted when a change in the music’s pitch would enliven them in unison. Cirelli posits that this phenomenon may shed light on why we, as humans, are instinctively drawn to live music and shared experiences.

“When something captures our collective attention, we connect with each other. It speaks to the shared experience,” says Cirelli, who also directs the TEMPO Lab, a research initiative studying how infants and children interact with music.

This suggests that it isn’t just about a single performance. It is about the sense of unity and camaraderie that shared experiences foster.

Early social interactions are crucial

The importance of these early social interactions cannot be overstated. In fact, the socialization that occurs during early childhood helps lay the foundation for an infant’s future skills and abilities.

Music can play a key role in strengthening these crucial bonds. According to Cirelli, prior research supports this.

Other studies have shown that infants are more likely to interact with someone who sings a familiar song to them or dances with them. Remarkably, these strong emotional reactions to music and song emerge even before the child’s first birthday.

How the research teams studies babies with live music

This study was published in the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. The researchers analyzed 120 babies aged six to 14 months as they watched a children’s opera performed live or recorded at a concert hall/research facility at McMaster University. The recording was carefully designed to replicate the live experience as closely as possible.

The difference in the babies’ responses was notable. Those who watched the live performance were engaged for 72% of the 12-minute show, while those who viewed the recorded version were only attentive 54% of the time. Furthermore, those in the live audience maintained their attention for longer periods.

This heightened engagement during live performances raises intriguing questions for music cognition researchers. Cirelli wonders, “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?”

Virtual performances not fully dismissed

Interestingly, babies did not entirely dismiss virtual performances. When the researchers studied a group of babies watching the same recording via Zoom, they found that the infants paid attention about 64% of the time. However, their attention span was more sporadic, and they were easily distracted.

Although the environment was more familiar and comfortable at home, the quality of their attention didn’t match that of those watching live. This further underscores the magic of a live show and the power it has to capture the undivided attention of even the youngest audience members.

In ongoing work, Cirelli and her team are exploring the impact of live performances delivered via Zoom and investigating the potential of a live online performance to replicate the mesmerizing power of in-person shows. Future research will delve deeper into the effect of live performances on memory and perceptions of performers.

These findings invite us to reconsider the early foundations of musical appreciation. “If a baby is frequently brought to these kinds of events, will that shape their foundation for engaging in music and the community later in childhood?” Cirelli queries, reminding us of the timeless allure of music in human lives.

More about humans and live music

Live music holds a special place in human culture and cognition. The excitement and emotional resonance of a live music performance offer a different experience compared to recorded music, touching on several aspects of our biology, psychology, and social structures. Here’s what we know:

Enhanced emotional connection

Live music can stir potent emotions, creating a deep bond between the performers and the audience. The shared experience of feeling the same emotion with a crowd amplifies these feelings and can lead to an overwhelming sense of euphoria, unity, or other strong emotions.

Social bonding created during live music events

Attending live music events is a highly social activity, fostering a sense of community and shared identity among attendees. Such events allow people to connect with others who share their musical tastes and often create lasting memories that contribute to a sense of personal and group identity.

Cognitive engagement

Research suggests that the active and dynamic nature of live performances can stimulate our cognitive processes more than recorded music. Live music requires a high degree of attention and anticipation, engaging our brains in a distinct way. This is particularly true for improvisational performances where unpredictability is high.

Sensory stimulation from live music events

Live music offers a rich, multi-sensory experience. Beyond the auditory aspect, it includes visual cues from performers, the physical sensation of sound (particularly bass frequencies), and even the smells and tastes associated with the concert venue. This full sensory immersion can make live music a more impactful experience.

Unique, irreplaceable experiences

Each live performance is unique, a one-time event that can’t be fully replicated. This singularity adds to the allure of live music and makes it a distinct phenomenon in our culture.

Live performances are often associated with specific moments in time, places, or personal experiences, which can imbue them with special significance.

Physical responses and dance

Live music often involves dance or movement, either from the performers or the audience. This physical expression can boost the enjoyment of the music and increase feelings of social bonding and cohesion. It also engages our motor systems, linking the auditory and motor regions of the brain in ways that recorded music alone cannot.

Therapeutic effects

The social bonding and emotional catharsis that can occur during live music performances may have therapeutic effects, helping to reduce feelings of loneliness, improve mood, and even decrease stress and anxiety.

Economic and cultural impact

Live music events, from small local gigs to large music festivals, play a significant role in our economies and cultural lives. They create jobs, stimulate local businesses, and contribute to cultural diversity and vitality.

In conclusion, our connection to live music spans the emotional, cognitive, social, and even economic aspects of our lives. Despite advancements in recording technology, the unique experience of live music continues to hold a significant place in human culture.

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