Donnerstag 22.09.2022 14:00 — 16:00
Max-Planck-Institut für empirische Ästhetik

IDEA Lecture with Sandra Trehub: Musical Beginnings

In this talk, I focus on musicality in infancy, specifically on the skills that underlie our ability to perceive, appreciate, and produce music. Infants have an impressive array of music-related skills as part of their biological heritage. They detect the smallest pitch and timing differences that are relevant to any musical culture. In general, however, they focus on global or relational features such as melodic contours and rhythms, much like adults. They remember melodies days, even months, after hearing them, especially if their exposure to such melodies occurs at home. Caregivers around the world provide infants with rich musical experiences. They sing to soothe or engage infants, typically moving while doing so.

There are cross-cultural differences in infant-directed singing, stemming from differences in caregiving practices, especially infant carrying and holding. Infants’ musical experiences, regardless of culture, are predominantly multimodal. For Western caregivers, who usually sing to infants in face-to-face contexts, feedback from infants influences the expressiveness of performances. Infant-directed singing is highly effective in capturing and holding infants’ attention, regulating arousal levels, and ameliorating distress. Song familiarity increases its efficacy in infant engagement and distress reduction. Over time infants become music-makers as well as music listeners. By 6 months of age, they engage in rudimentary dancing, involving rhythmic movement to rhythmic music. Over successive months, dancing becomes more frequent and more complex. The familiarity of the music and its groove increase infants’ propensity to dance and to smile while dancing. Rudimentary singing appears considerably later than rudimentary dancing, with large individual differences evident. Infant dancing and singing are poorly suited to laboratory study, so future gains in knowledge are likely to come from systematic data collection in the familiar home environment.

One of many unresolved issues is the influence of early musical exposure on the emergence of various music perception and production skills. Exposure differences are greatest across cultures. For example, infants in “carrying” cultures, where caregiver and infant are in almost constant physical contact, experience a wide range of music, not only music intended for them. The timing of musical milestones in these infants and young children would shed light on the malleability of early musical development. Finally, parents of infants with developmental disabilities also use music to engage infants and modulate their arousal, with beneficial effects on the relationship and on parenting efficacy. The field is poised for novel musical interventions for special developmental populations.

Sandra Trehub is Professor Emeritus in Psychology at the University of Toronto.

The talk will be held in English, and will take place both in person and online. External guests are welcome. Please contact


The IDEA Lectures bring together internationally renowned voices taking up questions of musical production and reception from a wide variety of perspectives. Musicologists from all disciplines are involved as well as musicians, psychologists, cognitive scientists, sociologists, philosophers and ethnologists.