Infants more tuned in than adults

Music Professor Eugenia Costa-Giomi
Music Professor Eugenia Costa-Giomi Photo: Marsha Miller

This article originally appeared in the Further Findings research blog.

Music Professor Eugenia Costa-Giomi gave me a test that she gives to infants as part of her musical cognition research.

Infants pass the test. I failed.

The consolation was that most other adults fail, too.

The test is to watch and listen to alternating videos of two young women singing two different melodies, which are Bach minuets. In the first set of videos, one woman sings one melody and the other sings another melody.

In the second set, things are switched. One woman will sing the other woman's melody in her own voice and one woman's voice will be dubbed when the other woman is on screen.

"Babies can tell the difference," said Costa-Giomi, a professor of music and human learning in the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music.

"Listen to this again," she said as she replayed a video. "This girl is singing with the other girl's voice. Babies can tell that. Adults miss it. So you were like all adults."

The test I took was an abbreviated version of the one Costa-Giomi gives as part of her research. She's conducting a series of studies to find out how infants discriminate and categorize melodies and timbres.

"What is interesting about these studies is that they show infants' sensitivity to all the characteristics of the music. They could detect the mismatch of face to song as well as of face to voice," she said. "So they are paying attention to everything. As adults, perhaps we are so tuned in to detecting changes in content that we miss the changes in voices."

Costa-Giomi presented a paper about the face-and-voice research at the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in August in Seattle.

The spine that ties together Costa-Giomi's research is music categorization, how infants recognize and react to musical sounds that are similar but not the same.

"We haven't studied that so much," she said about categorization. "We know a lot about discrimination, infants' ability to tell things apart. But we haven't studied so much infants' ability to perceive the similarity between things.

"To go around the world and perceive the similarities among events and objects is really crucial," she said. "Detecting just differences would be a very inefficient way to learn about the world. After all, most things are somehow different from each other. We need to perceive similarities."

In the study that led to the face-and-voice study, Costa-Giomi found infants were not so good at categorizing melodies. But they were really good at discriminating instruments and melodies.

"They would hear melodies played by a flute or a clarinet, for example," she said. "And they could detect the difference between the instruments and they could detect the difference between the melodies as well."

She did a similar study, but this time women were singing the melodies. The infants heard the songs but didn't see the singers

"They did not discriminate the voices of the women, even though they had discriminated the instrument before," Costa-Giomi said. "That was very puzzling to us because we know that infants are very sensitive to timbre. We know that they can recognize their mother's voice hours after they are born, for example. In fact, our own studies have shown that infants can discriminate their mother's singing voice from that of another woman."

How seeing the singer helps infants identify and discriminate voices is one of the questions she intends to research further.

"The ultimate purpose of these studies is to understand how infants learn about music," she said.

Her research with infants is conducted in the Children's Development Laboratory in the Seay Building where the university's Department of Psychology is housed.

The building and the children's lab opened just as Costa-Giomi arrived at the university in 2002. She worked with Leslie Cohen, a professor of psychology, until he retired last spring.

During the experiments, the infants are seated on their mothers' laps as they are exposed to the videos and sound. Their attention is attracted to the screen by something colorful like a sunflower. Music plays when they look and stops when they look away. This has proven to be an effective method of measuring infants' reactions to stimuli, Costa-Giomi said. But it works only up to a certain age.

Once they learn to walk, she said with a laugh, "they are not going sit on their mother's lap and look at a sunflower for five minutes. They are going to jump out, open the door and leave."

Watch the videos used during the test.