Ep. 137 Transcript

Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.

Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson. And this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. My guest today is Dr. Laurel Trainor, Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behavior at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. Dr. Trainor is the founding and present director of the McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind, which houses Live Lab, a research concert hall equipped with motion capture and EEG. She’s also a research scientist at the Rotman Research Institute and has published over 160 articles on the neuroscience of auditory development and perception of music. Welcome to Enhance Life with Music, Laurel.

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:00:49] Oh, well, thanks for having me.

Mindy Peterson: [00:00:50] It’s been said that the very first social interactions of a human are musical, meaning lullabies, but maybe also that sing songy style of speaking that adults often use to speak to infants. And we’re talking today about the wonder of lullabies, the impact that lullabies have on us. Can you start out by just kind of defining what is a lullaby? Are there certain unique characteristics and structure or pitch or rhythm that qualify a song as a lullaby?

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:01:23] Yeah, well, it’s quite remarkable that in every culture we know, past and present, people sing to babies and they seem to do that, as you said, right from the beginning. A lullaby. You know, we might define it as a song that’s sung to infants to calm them down, to help them to sleep, because we all know infants and indeed young children and even teenagers are not always good at regulating their state. So infants, really, especially human infants, are born very immature and they need caregivers to help them to regulate their state. So when they’re tired, sometimes they have trouble going to sleep. And so, as I said, around the world, people sing these special lullaby songs that help the infant to control their state. And yes, they do have some unique characteristics. So we’ve done some research recording lullabies from different places. They tend to have a small pitch range. They tend to have a slow, sort of soothing tempo. But a lot actually, of what makes something a lullaby is exactly how it’s sung. So when caregivers sing to a baby, they they tend to sing in a soothing, connected, sort of legato style. They typically use a very loving timbre of voice. And actually, adults are, when we test it 100% correct at telling of something, is being sung to an infant with the intent to put them to sleep like in a lullaby or as a play song. So these are really distinct. And indeed, you know, we’ve asked mothers to sing play songs like Sing Itsy Bitsy Spider to Your Infant with the intention of putting them to Sleep. And mothers didn’t say, That’s crazy, I can’t do that. They all just did it. And in fact, what they did was they slowed the tempo, they lowered their pitch, and they took out sort of the rhythmic aspects and they made it very soothing. So basically lullabies. They have some structural features, but they also have some, we might call them performance features. So the way that that caregivers actually sing them.

Mindy Peterson: [00:03:33] And does that involve the meter sort of a rocking six, eight time, three, eight time type of a meter at all?

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:03:41] Well, the interesting thing is it can be they can be in basically any meter, but it’s whether you put in lots of accents, so you make it really rhythmic and rousing or whether you make it very smooth and legato and you don’t emphasize the accents so much. So the lullabies tend to be very smooth. They have sort of more downward contours, pitch contours, as opposed to play songs because parents sing to infants in other styles and most notably play songs. And they’re typically sung faster, they’re sung more rhythmically. They tend to have a higher pitch, and they’re used in situations where the infants may be in a good alert state and they interact, they use them to interact with the infant, draw the infant’s attention to the caregiver’s face, which is a really important social signal for babies. They often involve playing with objects, so they use them to interact with the infant, with objects or toys and so on. They often involve actions touching the infants head and shoulders, knees and toes, horses galloping and so on. So the the lullaby in the play song sales are really, are really different and they’re used in different. Caretaking situations.

Mindy Peterson: [00:05:01] It’s really interesting how similar music, similar songs can be used to soothe and calm, but they can also be used to stimulate and arouse to just depending on how it’s sung and how it’s used. One thing that you mentioned was that lowered pitch, and that was really interesting because we had a guest recently on the show who was talking about the application of music with dogs and with pets. One thing that really caught my attention is she was talking about how the lowered pitch is really important in calming dogs. And so that makes sense that it would also calm humans, too. Do you find that these characteristics or elements of lullabies are pretty universal across cultures?

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:05:49] Yes. In fact, we found that in in several studies over the decades actually now. And there’s a recent study done by Sam Mayer’s group that also show you can take lullabies from an unfamiliar culture and adults still identify them as lullabies. They know something that they can’t tell you how they’re doing it necessarily. But but they absolutely can tell. I think one of the things that’s interesting, you know, the cross species work because no other species really have music the way humans do. But at the same time, some of the characteristics of music probably are sort of universal characteristics of how sounds affect us. So, you know, downward contours, lower pitch, you know, across animal species. If you want to be unthreatening, you use a quieter timbre. If you want to be threatening, you use a loud, louder sounds. So some of these things that really these sort of characteristics of sounds, not necessarily music do spill over into to music and the way that we use music to interact with babies.

Mindy Peterson: [00:07:01] You’ve alluded to some of this already, but as a researcher, any other comments that you have on why those elements are so soothing and relaxing?

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:07:10] Well, what I can tell you is that we’ve done infant preference studies, so we basically let infants listen to different sounds by controlling the infant controls, how long they listen by their looking behaviour. So as long as they look at a place on a screen, they get to to hear a particular thing. And we’ve shown that infants prefer this sort of infant directed lullaby style of singing over what’s more typically the way adults sing. So it has a big effect on the infants. But I think the other thing that we sometimes forget is that music in general, it’s largely about sound, but it’s not only about sound. You know, people go to concerts because they want to also see the musicians and they get a lot of information about how the musicians are moving, about how the music affects them. And with infants these days, we have recorded music. So we can just put on music and play it for infants. But it’s a quite a different experience when the infant actually experiences the mother or the father singing to them, because typically parents hold the infant and they rock the infant. So the infant’s not only getting the sound, but they’re getting the rhythmic movements that are correlated with the sound. They’re getting tactile information as they move. They might be brushing against a blanket. They feel the parent’s arms, they may hear the parent’s heartbeat. So it’s a very rich multisensory experience that you get when you know you’re being sung to as an infant.

Mindy Peterson: [00:08:48] Yeah, well, that whole process can also create hormonal or chemical processes to be stimulated like oxytocin and vasopressin and cortisol that can influence that whole trust and affection and bonding between the the mother or the father or the caregiver and that child. Can you tell us anything more about some of those results of the lullabies?

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:09:17] Yeah. So music in general has those hormonal effects that you were describing. The cortisol in particular is interesting because cortisol affects our memory of situations. So a number of studies in adults have shown that cortisol can affect how we feel about the people that we made music with. So there’s something about the music that that whole system seems to be involved in, because we know in adults, if you make music with other people and music makes us want to move to it. And so when you experience music with other people, you also are typically moving in synchrony with those other people and those movements in sync. Any with other people affect our feelings about those other people. It doesn’t take very long. Just a few minutes of experiencing that. And adults will rate each other as liking each other more, trusting each other more, even if they are given a game to play in which they can cooperate or compete. If they experience this synchronous movement to music as opposed to moving with each other asynchronously, they’ll actually cooperate more with each other. So it has these powerful effects in adults and those are carried out in part through through these hormonal systems you were referring to.

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:10:37] And we now know that this also happens in in young infants, some of the sort of earliest indications of music and being related to empathy and social interactions. We can see an infant sort of around 14 months. So if we bounce like infants of that age can’t really move very well and sync to the music, although they do move faster if the music has a faster tempo. But in one study, we bounced infants in time to some music and the infant was facing an experimenter, and the experimenter either bounced in sync or out of sync with the infant for less than 4 minutes. And then after that, we gave infants the opportunity to help the experimenter. So, for example, she was pinning clothes on a line and she accidentally dropped one of her clothes, pins, couldn’t reach it. And we looked at whether the infants would help her by picking it up and handing it back to her. So they had 30 seconds in which to decide to help or not.

Mindy Peterson: [00:11:40] So these infants must be, what, a year these are?

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:11:43] Yeah, these particular infants were 14 months because that’s about the youngest age you can get these overt helping behaviors. Okay. And so what we found was, in fact, if they had bounced in sync with the experimenter, they were in over a few studies. They were about twice as likely to help. So that’s pretty powerful that yeah, experiencing this music together in the movement, together with a stranger, actually makes the infants feel affiliated and engage in in what appears to be empathy responses.

Mindy Peterson: [00:12:15] That is such a phenomenal characteristic of music in general and experiencing music, making music together with other humans. Just that entrainment effect that it has and like you said, developing empathy and bonding attachment, things like that. The news today is so good at bringing out anything that’s going to do the opposite and be divisive and push people apart. And yet, working in the music industry, there’s so many times where I’m with people who I know we could find differences in our our beliefs and our lives and things like that. But when you’re in a musical setting at a concert or just making music together, discussing music, all of that just drops away. And it would be really interesting to experience putting politicians into a concert together where they’re either the musicians themselves and putting on this concert together or attending a concert together. And I just wonder how much more cooperation would be a part of their negotiations and their interactions with one another if they were involved in music more in that way?

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:13:24] Yeah, it’s a really interesting concept because we do use music, you know, at weddings, at parties, at sporting events and you know, even in the military, music is used when you want people to sort of come together for a common purpose. But somehow in politics, we don’t tend to use it as much. But yeah, it would be an interesting experiment, wouldn’t it?

Mindy Peterson: [00:13:47] Yes, it would. Well, I’ve read that there are also very quantifiable effects, such as shorter hospital stays for premature babies who are, I don’t want to say, subjected to lullabies, but who have lullabies included in their care. Are there any other measurable, quantifiable effects that you want to talk about in terms of reducing heart rate or shorter hospital stays or things like that that are effects of lullabies on infants?

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:14:16] Yeah. So this is mainly sort of through the music therapy realm, but many studies now show, as you said, that infants born prematurely who are in the neonatal intensive care unit, when they’re exposed to music, it shortens their time spent in hospital. Infants are very responsive to music, probably from before they’re born. So another important characteristic for them is familiarity. Probably parents know that they tend to sing the same song over and over. They may have one or two songs that they sing every night or, you know, when putting their infants to sleep. And they may wonder why, or they may never have thought about why am I doing that? But infant. No. Those songs and infants like to hear familiar songs. And in fact, the arousal levels of infants decrease when they hear familiar songs as opposed to songs that they don’t know. So we can measure that with skin conductance and other means.

Mindy Peterson: [00:15:17] Well, imagine just that repetition to it’s comfortable, it’s comforting to have that familiarity of the song. And also the repetition could probably be almost a hypnotic, hypnotic effect. And it’s just an indicator of, okay, this is what’s coming next is bedtime, because we always sing this song at bedtime. And so just that routine brings familiarity and comfort and it’s just an indicator where they know what to expect next.

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:15:46] Absolutely. And you know, the human brain, I think, in some ways can be thought of as an organ that’s constantly predicting the future and then comparing what happens with what it predicted. And it’s something that’s essential for survival. You have to be prepared all the time for what’s going to happen next. And if your predictions aren’t fulfilled, if you’re wrong about your predictions and you need to learn from that. So it’s very comforting when, as you say, when the your predictions are fulfilled. So when you have a familiar melody, part of the comfort comes because we have this big expectation system that’s always chugging away in the background of our brains. And so when infants know what’s coming next, they can calm down, their arousal levels decrease, and they can go to sleep. For instance.

Mindy Peterson: [00:16:35] How would you lullabies affect caregivers? I kind of think of these lullabies as being meant just for the kids, the child and calming the child down. But I imagine it kind of relaxes and soothes the caregiver, too. What can you tell us about that, of that?

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:16:54] Yeah, no, it absolutely does. The lullabies soothe caregivers as well as infants. I think we used to think about infants as being quite passive and that we sort of did things to them. We showed them things, we talked to them, we sang to them, and they just kind of were sponges and absorbed this. But we now know that they’re active from the beginning and how they engage with the world. And so they take a mother and infant who are interacting. It’s not just that the mother’s doing things to the infant, but the infant is responding. So the infant is smiling. The infant might turn away. If they’re overwhelmed, the infant might cry, the infant might laugh. So the infant is giving all kinds of signals to the mother, and the mother is also giving all kinds of signals to the baby. The mother might smile. When the baby does, certain things increase the pitch of their voice when the infant responds in certain ways. So there’s this really amazing, coordinated dance that happens happens between adults as well, but it’s already happening between infants and their caregivers. And we now have lots of evidence that this a good coordinated interaction is associated with better developmental trajectories. So we also know that when mothers and infants are interacting, their heart rates tend to synchronize their arousal levels that we can measure from galvanic skin responses. So their arousal levels tend to coordinate and even aspects of their brain responses coordinate. So, for example, studies have shown that brain synchrony between a mother and an infant measured in prefrontal areas of their brains, that this brain synchrony is higher when they watch a movie in close proximity to each other than when they’re physically apart. We know that the synchrony increases when the mother touches the infant affectionately. So these interactions and music is very often a part of what’s going on in these interactions are really critical for all aspects, you know, social emotional development, but probably also cognitive development for infants.

Mindy Peterson: [00:19:10] Yeah, it really does have that holistic effect affecting so many different aspects of the mother and the child or the caregiver and the child. One thing I wondered about before with lullabies is some of the sort of the macabre lyrics that I’ve heard of. Some of the songs like The Bough Breaks, The Cradle Falls Down, You know, Down Comes Baby, Cradle and All. And when I was preparing for this conversation, I read something that was really fascinating, that was talking about how lullabies can almost function as a way for the moms or the caregivers to express their own emotions, whether it’s joy or worry or grief. And they kind of alluded to the fact that some of these lullabies that have. Survived for generation after generation, have some sort of depth of sadness to them, whether it’s the lyrics or maybe a minor key or whatever it is. And the thought was that the caregivers singing these lullabies can almost experience a type of therapy for these new parents as they kind of vocalize their hopes and fears. And music is the sound of emotion. So just how they’re articulating these lullabies and singing them with that timbre that you discussed earlier could have a therapeutic effect on the parent. Have you heard anything like that or have any thoughts on that?

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:20:40] Yes, actually, this occurs not only in Western societies, but in other societies as well. I remember it’s probably a few decades now. Sandra Tripp was traveling and recorded some lullabies in context where she didn’t understand the words and the parents were singing in beautiful, you know, soothing, loving tone of voice, as if the world was just a great place. And so she was shocked when she had them translated. And, you know, they were saying, your father’s a jerk and, you know, all this kind of stuff. And but it’s very interesting.

Mindy Peterson: [00:21:18] So that must have been the lullaby that was sung right after childbirth.

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:21:22] Yeah, it could be. Yeah. But but it’s interesting that I think the mother is still soothing the baby. And as you say, the soothing tone of voice and so on is probably calming the mother down. And, you know, we can only speculate, but probably being able to articulate those in a situation where, you know, is sort of unthreatening, they can articulate those things to a baby because baby’s not going to understand anyway. It’s a pretty safe environment to do that. It may well be beneficial for the parent to be able to express that.

Mindy Peterson: [00:22:00] Huh? Well, that’s one answer to the next question I’m going to ask you. But what are the benefits of live lullabies that we sing ourselves versus recorded lullabies like singing something yourself versus commanding Alexa to play lullaby playlist? What are the benefits of life beyond what we just talked about with giving the caregiver a chance to sort of vocalize and express themselves?

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:22:27] Yeah, well, when you listen to recorded music or when babies listen to recorded music, it’s probably beneficial. But the research suggests that when parents sing live to their infants, it has considerably more benefit when the parent singing to an infant. They’re constantly adjusting their singing, depending on the reactions they’re getting from their infant. So through gets upset and looks away, you know, they’ll probably sing quieter or stop singing for a little bit until the infant can regulate enough to want to engage again. And then they’ll sort of continue. Whereas when you have recorded music, it just is what it is. So it’s not reactive to what the infant is signaling.

Mindy Peterson: [00:23:12] No live improvising going on there.

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:23:15] Exactly. And lullabies are actually very improvised. So the mother or father will often put in the infant’s name. If they get a good reaction from the infant, they’ll repeat a phrase a few times. You know, they’ll change the words they’ll do they’ll do all kinds of sort of improvisation just automatically. And it’s really dependent on the cues they’re getting from the infant, which.

Mindy Peterson: [00:23:38] Engages all those other benefits that you talked about earlier in terms of the prosocial benefits and the hormonal reaction?

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:23:45] Absolutely. Yeah. In one study that we did, we were sort of interested in this question about does it matter if the mother is engaged with the infant or the father is engaged with the infant when they’re experiencing the music or not? So we set up a study where mothers and babies or fathers and babies came in for classes, baby and music classes, which are fairly common these days. But in one class they engaged in sort of active music making together. They learned songs and they bounce their babies to the music and they helped their babies play xylophones and this kind of stuff. And in the other case, we had just music on in the background. So they came in, they they played. It was a social situation. You know, we had a ball station and a book station and so on. And so the infants played together and the mothers could still socialize, but the music was in the background and it was not live. So they did about six months of these weekly classes and we follow these infants. And the results were really quite amazing because the infants who experienced the live music, even though there were no differences between the groups at the beginning, but the infants who had experienced the live music, they were more advanced in social emotional development. Their early sort of pre. Gesturing, which is predictive of how their language will develop, was more advanced. Their brain responses to sound were more advanced. So there were these quite significant effects that we found after six months of this. We don’t know entirely what exactly in the interaction is driving it, but I think one of the things that’s driving it is the mothers in the live situation are becoming more sensitive to the cues that their babies are giving them. So there’s a better sort of interaction there. The infants are responded to, their cues are are met with some kind of reaction. And that might be one of the things that these early musical interactions are doing. They’re really honing or improving those early, really important interactions between parents and their infants.

Mindy Peterson: [00:25:50] Well, one thing that’s so intriguing about what you’re saying is we tend to think of lullabies as a short term fix, like, let’s calm this baby down now. And lullaby is something that we have all been brought up with. And it’s sort of natural and instinctive to just start singing to that baby, to calm and soothe and relax them. But you’re really describing some long term results from lullabies, from singing lullabies to your child to having a caregiver or a parent who did sing to you from prosocial behavior and just the connecting that happens between those humans that are engaged in that musical interaction. Talk to us about some of the long term benefits that lullabies do have that you found in your research.

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:26:40] Yeah, well, I think one of the interesting things about music in general is that it’s highly rhythmic. So it has an underlying beat that’s pretty regular. And so much of our biology depends on rhythms. So our our heartbeats or rhythm, our locomotion, like our moving is rhythmic. You know, we walk rhythmically, we run rhythmically. Infants learn to crawl rhythmically. And our communication systems that music and language, they’re also rhythmically organized. And the sounds of music and the sounds of language in particular go by really quickly and in real time. You’ve got to organize them. If you’re listening, trying to learn a language, you have to hear the individual speech sounds, the phonemes, but then you have to organize them into syllables and words and meaningful units, and you have to do that in real time. And language is pretty fast. So the only way really that we can do that is in real time to be organizing this input rhythmically. So we know there’s lots of research now showing that in pretty much all of the developmental disorders, which would include dyslexia, autism, attention, deficits, stuttering, developmental coordination disorder, all of these developmental disorders are associated with poor perception of rhythm and timing. So it’s as if your brain can’t easily. It’s not that they can’t do it at all.

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:28:09] But if your brain can’t easily organize incoming input into sort of chunks or rhythmic patterns, it’s going to have long term effects. So we we think that this early experience of music, one of the things that is beneficial from it is that it trains rhythmic perception. It trains rhythmic patterning, which is probably important for putting infants brains on a good developmental trajectory. And I might just add, we we’ve now been studying with my colleagues in France premature infant brains and already by 32 weeks gestation. So these are newborns who were born prematurely. When we play them a rhythm pattern and most rhythm patterns with any complexity, they have a basic beat rhythm, but then they also have groupings of that. So, you know, in a sort of march, every two beats are sort of grouped together, one to 1 to 1 to or in a waltz. One, two, three, one, two, three. So you get these different tempos for the different levels of rhythm in a musical pattern. And these premature infants, already their brains are encoding all of those levels of timing structure. So it seems that it’s just a really critical thing that our brain has to be able to do to understand music, language, probably to help us move everything to do with sensory motor development.

Mindy Peterson: [00:29:36] Well, this has been so intriguing and I will definitely be thinking differently and from a more informed perspective, the next time I’m babysitting my little neighbor friends, one year old, and putting her to bed and singing to her, I will have all this more information that I can be having in my brain as I sing to her.

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:30:00] Good.

Mindy Peterson: [00:30:00] Laura, let me ask all my guest to close out our conversation with a musical ending a coda by sharing a song or story about a moment that music enhanced your life. Tell us about the song that listeners will be hearing a little clip of coming up here.

Laurel Trainor, PhD: [00:30:16] Yeah, well, there’s so many moments, but one that’s really special for me is It’s a wonderful world, and particularly the Satchmo, the Louis Armstrong version. So it was one of the songs that we danced to at our wedding. So every time I hear it now, you know, I tear up it of it brings back really good memories. I mean, I’ve always loved the song and and the words and Satchmo is unique. Voice just speaks to me. And you know the words. I see friends shaking hands, saying, How do you do? What they’re really saying is, I love you. And in general, you know, I think it’s really amazing how songs become associated with important events in our lives, and that when we hear those songs, they bring back memories and emotions. And that’s certainly true for me, for this song.

Transcribed by Sonix.ai