Infants hear more speech than music at home

Comparison of speech and music input for infants over two years.


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In an infant’s world, speech and music are the main sounds they hear. While we know speech is essential for language development, the role of music could be more precise.

A recent University of Washington study published in Developmental Science has shed light on infants’ auditory environments. It compared the amount of speech and music infants are exposed to, revealing a significant disparity.

The study found that infants are immersed in a world of speech, hearing significantly more of it than music. This disparity notably increases as they progress through their early years, underscoring the importance of speech in their language development.

Researchers wanted to see what sounds babies hear at home. Previous studies focused on words babies hear but lack knowledge of music.

Researchers studied daylong audio recordings from infants at 6, 10, 14, 18, and 24 months. They found that infants heard more music from devices than in-person sources, but speech was more prevalent. The speech intended for infants increased, while music stayed the same.

In previous lab studies, corresponding author Christina Zhao, a UW research assistant professor of speech and hearing sciences, and her team used engaging music interventions involving movement and instruments with infants. They found that this enhanced babies’ brain responses to speech sounds.

Past studies mainly relied on parental reports, but parents tend to overestimate how much they talk or sing to their children.

Researchers studied daylong recordings of English-learning infants at ages 6 to 24 months. They found that infants heard more music from electronic devices than in-person sources, while speech exposure increased over time. Most music was background noise, like from the radio or streaming.

This contrasts with lab studies that used engaging music interventions. In those sessions, music was played while infants played instruments, enhancing their responses to speech sounds.

Zhao’s team noticed that music interventions boosted infants’ response to speech sounds in lab studies. Wondering about real-world effects, they embarked on this study. To annotate the data, researchers used the Zooniverse platform, where volunteers identified speech or music, its source (in-person or electronic), and whether it was intended for babies.

With this study’s small sample size, researchers aim to broaden their dataset to see if the findings apply to other cultures and populations. They plan a follow-up study using LENA recordings from Latinx families. Since audio recordings lack context, researchers also want to understand when music moments occur in infants’ lives.

Zhao said, “We’re curious to see whether music input is correlated with any developmental milestones later on for these babies. We know speech input is highly correlated with later language skills. Our data shows that speech and music input are not correlated, so it’s not like a family that tends to talk more and will also have more music. We’re trying to see if music contributes more independently to certain aspects of development.”

Also Read: How does the brain separate speech from the song?

Journal reference:

  1. Lindsay Hippe, Victoria Hennessy, et al., Comparison of speech and music input in North American infants’ home environment over the first 2 years of life. Developmental Science. DOI: 10.1111/desc.13528.


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