The information that classical music is good for babies has circled the web and parents’ group chats. But are the benefits real? We do not know whether it is classical music specifically. However, a study by the Geneva University Hospitals has proved premature infants have better brain development when they listen to a specific type of music.  

Premature babies who were exposed to music in intensive care units developed their brain networks more effectively, leading to a functional brain architecture more similar to term newborn babies. 

The impact in the development of the brain 

In some areas of infant brains exposed to music, larger development was detected. This had an impact on sensory perception, on attention mechanisms which are helpful to the learning process related to cognitive and perceptive development, on affective and emotional processing, and on cognitive and behavioral responses

The study was developed by researchers from the University of Geneva and published in June 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), one of the world’s most-cited scientific journals. 

Overall, 45 babies participated in the research: 16 term newborn babies (i.e. babies who were not born prematurely) and 29 preterm infants, newly born in the ICU environments of the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG). 

Of 29 premature babies, 15 were in the control group which had no music intervention and 14 were in the one which had. 

According to the article “Music in premature infants enhances high-level cognitive brain networks”, written based on the study’s results, premature babies exposed to a certain type of music had significant enhancement in the development of their brain networks in relation to the preterm babies who had no contact with the music. 

The brains of premature babies are not fully developed yet because of their shorter pregnancy period. For this reason, babies need to spend some time in an ICU incubator to continue developing. 

Despite simulating the environment of the uterus, incubators are found lacking in terms of development. According to Petra Huppi, the professor leading the UNIGE’s Faculty of Medicine’s research and head of HUG’s Development and Growth Division, “The brain’s immaturity, combined with a disturbing sensory environment, explains why the neural networks do not develop properly.” 

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The Music

The premature babies from the study had contact with music composed exclusively for them. The specific instruments that were used, such as a harp, bells, and a pungi, had already produced brain and behavioral responses in premature newborns in a previous study. 

The music was divided into three tracks in order to adapt to the babies’ vigilance state: one that helped awake the babies; another which interacted with them while they were alert; and a third one that helped put them to sleep. 

Written by Luisa Scherer

Translated by Mariana Gruber