This Special Music Helped Preemie Babies’ Brains Develop

Listening to music helped preterm babies' brains develop, according to the results of a new Swiss study.

(© Iryna Tiumentseva/Adobe)


Move over, Baby Einstein: New research from Switzerland shows that listening to soothing music in the first weeks of life helps encourage brain development in preterm babies.

For the study, the scientists recruited a harpist and a new-age musician to compose three pieces of music.

The Lowdown

Children who are born prematurely, between 24 and 32 weeks of pregnancy, are far more likely to survive today than they used to be—but because their brains are less developed at birth, they're still at high risk for learning difficulties and emotional disorders later in life.

Researchers in Geneva thought that the unfamiliar and stressful noises in neonatal intensive care units might be partially responsible. After all, a hospital ward filled with alarms, other infants crying, and adults bustling in and out is far more disruptive than the quiet in-utero environment the babies are used to. They decided to test whether listening to pleasant music could have a positive, counterbalancing effect on the babies' brain development.

Led by Dr. Petra Hüppi at the University of Geneva, the scientists recruited Swiss harpist and new-age musician Andreas Vollenweider (who has collaborated with the likes of Carly Simon, Bryan Adams, and Bobby McFerrin). Vollenweider developed three pieces of music specifically for the NICU babies, which were played for them five times per week. Each track was used for specific purposes: To help the baby wake up; to stimulate a baby who was already awake; and to help the baby fall back asleep.

When they reached an age equivalent to a full-term baby, the infants underwent an MRI. The researchers focused on connections within the salience network, which determines how relevant information is, and then processes and acts on it—crucial components of healthy social behavior and emotional regulation. The neural networks of preemies who had listened to Vollenweider's pieces were stronger than preterm babies who had not received the intervention, and were instead much more similar to full-term babies.

Next Up

The first infants in the study are now 6 years old—the age when cognitive problems usually become diagnosable. Researchers plan to follow up with more cognitive and socio-emotional assessments, to determine whether the effects of the music intervention have lasted.

The first infants in the study are now 6 years old—the age when cognitive problems usually become diagnosable.

The scientists note in their paper that, while they saw strong results in the babies' primary auditory cortex and thalamus connections—suggesting that they had developed an ability to recognize and respond to familiar music—there was less reaction in the regions responsible for socioemotional processing. They hypothesize that more time spent listening to music during a NICU stay could improve those connections as well; but another study would be needed to know for sure.

Open Questions

Because this initial study had a fairly small sample size (only 20 preterm infants underwent the musical intervention, with another 19 studied as a control group), and they all listened to the same music for the same amount of time, it's still undetermined whether variations in the type and frequency of music would make a difference. Are Vollenweider's harps, bells, and punji the runaway favorite, or would other styles of music help, too? (Would "Baby Shark" help … or hurt?) There's also a chance that other types of repetitive sounds, like parents speaking or singing to their children, might have similar effects.

But the biggest question is still the one that the scientists plan to tackle next: Whether the intervention lasts as the children grow up. If it does, that's great news for any family with a preemie — and for the baby-sized headphone industry.

Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt is a writer and researcher from Seattle. Her work has appeared in the Boston Review and Popular Mechanics. Follow her on Twitter at @ehhilde.
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Kidney transplant patient Robert Waddell, center, with his wife and children after being off immunosuppresants; photo aken last summer in Perdido Key, FL. Left to right: Christian, Bailey, Rob, Karen (wife), Robby and Casey.

Photo courtesy Rob Waddell

Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.

But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."

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Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.

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This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

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Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.