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Musical Intelligence to a Baby’s Ears at UNLV

By Michael Blain

Ever since the supposition of the alleged “Mozart Effect,” there has been tremendous interest in whether or not certain types of music can have an impact on the overall development of perception and intelligence. Since, historically, intelligent adults tend to have an appreciation of classical music anyway, the idea may be slightly flawed to begin with, but nevertheless, it still remains a topic worth looking into. At UNLV, they have a music lab being used to study this very supposition, and even more interestingly, to study the effects of music on infants. The director of the music lab is an experimental psychologist with a Ph. D. in the subject from Cornell University named Eric Hannon, and he also worked as an associate professor at Harvard University before joining the UNLV staff; these are certainly not credentials to scoff at. The primary lab coordinator, Parker Tichko, seems much more difficult to define, being a composer, audio remixer, producer, graduate of Wheaten College with a B.A. in both music and psychology and an obsessive online blogger by both personal and third party accounts.

According to Tichko, “Previous studies found that young infants are sensitive to both simple and moderately-complex meters up until 6-months of age. From here, cultural-specific biases begin to arise — a process casually referred to as music enculturation.” He defines the experimental process as follows, “Musical stimuli were created from one Bulgarian folk melody using simple (2:1), complex (3:2), or highly-complex (7:4) metrical ratios. Thus, the same melody was appropriated to three different meters: 4/4, 7/8, and 15/8. Additionally, the melody was transposed to 4 different keys and arranged to multiple instrumentation in order to sustain infant attention. 78 infants, ages five or seven months, were presented with a simple, complex and highly-complex melody during a habituation phase. After successful habituation, infants were presented with a series of familiar melodies, or disrupted melodies that contained an extra 200 ms gap. The researchers expected the younger infants to notice the melodies with the gap (a disruption of the overall meter) on the simple and complex conditions but not the older infants. The five month group were able to detect the disruptions in the simple and moderately complex conditions. The seven month group however, began to express a cultural-specific bias to simple ratios and were unable to detect disruptions in the moderately or highly complex conditions. The important finding, however, was that the younger infants were unable to identify the disrupted melodies in the highly complex (7:4) condition.”