In this episode, we interview Dr. Christina Zhao, researcher of how babies process sounds. Christina shares the commonality between your baby’s processing of music and language and how this impacts their development.

​Dr. Tian Christina Zhao is a Research Assistant Professor at the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of Washington. She is the director of the Lab for Early Auditory Perception (LEAP) which is housed within the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS). Her background intercepts various disciplines, including speech and hearing sciences, experimental psychology, biology and piano performance. Her research focuses on how the human brain processes complex sounds, such as speech and music; and how early experience, such as music training or language background, may influence these neural processes as well as development. Dr. Zhao conducts research with a wide range of methods, including behavioral, electrophysiological (EEG), physiological (ECG) as well as neuroimaging (MEG) measurements in both adults and infants. She actively collaborates nationally and internationally with researchers of diverse expertise, such as music cognition, speech science, linguistics, developmental psychology, and neuroscience.

More Resources:

Balkan meter studies:
Hannon, E. E. and S. E. Trehub (2005). “Metrical categories in infancy and adulthood.” Psychological Science 16(1): 48-55.

 

Hannon, E. E. and S. E. Trehub (2005). “Tuning in to musical rhythms: Infants learn more readily than adults.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102(35): 12639-12643.

 

Infant helping behaviors:
Cirelli, L. K., et al. (2014). “Interpersonal synchrony increases prosocial behavior in infants.” Developmental Science 17(6): 1003-1011.

 

Infant music to speech effect:
Zhao, T. C. and P. K. Kuhl (2016). “Musical intervention enhances infants’ neural processing of temporal structure in music and speech.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113(19): 5212-5217.

Transcription for Episode 5: Music, Language, and Your Baby

Amy

 

Welcome to Growing Up Brainy your portal into what’s happening inside your baby’s brain. We interview the experts, demystify the science and help you nurture your child towards a bright, open future.

 

Hi there, I’m your host Amy Husted, startup addict boy, mom of two, and chief commercial officer here at smallTalk. On today’s episode, I have the pleasure of talking with Dr. Christina Zhao, a research assistant professor at the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of Washington. She is the director of the Lab for Early Auditory Perception, housed within the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. So her research is focused on how the human brain processes complex sounds such as speech and music, and how early experience such as music training or language background may actually influence these neural processes as well as development. So before we dove into many questions that we have for her today, Christina, I would just love if you told us a little bit more about your background.

 

Christina

 

Thank you for having me here today, Amy. I’m very excited to talk to you a little bit more about our research. And for me, I started learning, playing piano when I was about four years old. And I also grew up as a bilingual speaker, speaking English and Mandarin Chinese. So I know a lot of my friends around me were either musicians or speak multiple languages. And that’s always intrigued me, how people can do a lot of these amazing things. And that triggered me to learn a little bit more about how the brain processes sounds when I was in college as an experimental psychology major. And just going down that route here I am today doing research on how babies learn to process all these rich and amazing sounds around us growing up.

 

Amy

 

Awesome. So our work at smallTalk is so focused on language and how it affects a baby’s brain development. But I love that your focus also brings music into that. So we know many parents want to foster musicality in their children. And have heard various facts about introducing their babies to music. But I would love for you to talk from a scientific perspective on what babies learn about music and through music. So really, what’s going on in those little noggins with this experience?

 

Christina

 

So music is actually a very rich concept, right? So we think about music as the sound we hear, but there’s also the feeling of the beat, of the rhythm, and you see people moving with music. So there’s the visual concept and you can see people’s emotions of the performers as well. That’s probably why music has been around for humans and our history for such a long period of time. And there’s actually been a lot of research and debate on when does music start and how it coincide with human evolution and all that. It’s very fascinating, but actually the field of studying music, cognition and perception from kind of the psychology, neuroscience perspective, it’s a very young field, but it’s very cool that it’s attracting a lot of interest now. So what we do know now is that babies, in fact, start to learn about the music in their environment very early on.

 

So there are a couple of my favorite studies. I can talk about them. So one of them is my favorite study that looks at how babies learn the music rhythm in their music culture before they actually turn age one. And there is a great parallel between how babies are learning the musical rhythm and how babies are learning the speech sounds in their language environment, too. So what this study was telling us was that at six months of age, babies were still processing rhythm from other cultures as well as rhythm from their own musical culture. So they’re kind of these universal listeners. And but by the time they hit about age one, their ability to process rhythm from other culture is already declining. So this was exemplified by this group of the researchers tested Canadian born babies and they heard this very cool seven beat rhythm from the Balkan region. And so what they further did was when another group of baby, when they’re about 11 months old, they send their parents CD’s of these Balkan folk songs in these seven beat rhythm and just have them play in the background for 15 minutes a day for about a month, and then when they tested them again at 12 months, these babies behaved like they grew up in the Balkan region and they can process this rhythm again. So together, these two experiments told us that babies are just picking up these music sounds in their environment very fast without even knowing it.

 

And another thing with music and babies is that we know this synchronous movement, when you’re moving to music rhythm between individuals can actually enhance the sense of social bonding and emotional connection between individuals. And that’s been shown in babies, too. So another one of my favorite studies shows that as young as about 14-month-old babies, when you bounce the baby in sync with another adult experimenter versus when they’re bounced asynchronously with the experimenters, the babies who were bounced in sync with that adult. When they were presented with a situation when they seemed like the adult experimenter needed help, these babies were more likely to help the experimenter when they were bound together in sync with each other, compared to the group of babies who were out of sync with the experimenter. So it’s very cool that this shows probably the basis why you feel music brings people together and you have a culture and people love the music in their culture because people feel connected to one another. But it’s very cool to see that it happens very early on in babies.

 

Amy

 

That’s fascinating. I love everything about that. I love, I think those are things that we see in life that music does bring people together. But I love hearing the scientific background and that it starts so early and it’s so much deeper than just something we’ve decided should be part of our culture. So that’s really cool. Christina, so I love, you know, diving into that idea of music specifically, but then shifting a little bit. One of the subjects you’ve researched and I find so fascinating is this connection between language and music. So how they kind of work together. And I would love for you to share with our listeners what are the similarities and what is that connection look like?

 

Christina

 

Yes, Amy, so as I was talking about it a little bit earlier, right, there are so many components of music. And of course, to me, the one of the big components is that it does have this rich sound in the music. And think about it, both our music and a lot of our spoken languages are revolved around the sounds. And we have to react to the meanings in the sound and the messages in the sound. So we can break down the characters of the sound a little bit more, which is what I’m really passionate about, studying the sound. And we can look at the similarities between music and speech sound. So some of the most important cues in the sound we think of it as, for example, pitch. Pitch is in music, very obvious. You have your melody and you can tell where the music is going. And for in speech, then you can think of as the your pitch going up and down can indicate whether you’re asking a question or making a statement. And when you think about talking to babies, our speech tends to become more varied in pitch. So almost like singsongy we call it. So we will talk to baby like, oh, how are you today? So that’s a pitch variation. And then there are another big component in the sound characteristics is the rhythm. So rhythm and music, it’s also very obvious. You have your beats, you have your meter, so you have strong, weak, strong, weak. You can follow the beat of the music. But when you think about speech, there’s also actually a lot of rhythm to it.

 

And each language can have their own different rhythm. And we are very sensitive to these rhythmic cues. And we know we can predict almost like when you’re going to say the next thing and when you’re focused in the sentence is going to be, those are all the rhythm that we’re processing. And one last characteristic I can touch on is the idea of timbre. So that tells you a little bit about the quality of the sound. Right. So in music, we can tell, for example, different instruments. And so the piano and the violin can play the exact same pitched sound, but you can’t immediately tell it’s from a piano versus a violin because they have this timbre difference. And for speech, that can indicate a lot of things, but the majority probably is the quality of your voice. So we can say the same word in the same pitch and the same rhythm, but people can figure out when it’s from me and one it’s from Amy, so that’s how they’re telling the difference in the timbre of our voice. So there are many, many more characteristics of sound. But I will just leave it to the three for now.

 

Amy

 

Yeah, that’s perfect. I love that. So hearing those characteristics and the similarities between the two is really cool. It’s fascinating. It’s a nice piece of nerdy trivia. Right. But why does it matter? What is it about these similarities in language and music and what does it mean for the development of our children?

 

Christina

 

So that’s a great question, Amy. So why we think this matters is that the thinking is if there are so many similarities across music sound and speech sound, and that there are these shared brain mechanisms or structures that are responsible for processing these characteristics. So then maybe by giving the babies a lot of experience, experiencing one thing like music, if we gave the babies a lot of music experience, then the brain mechanisms responsible for processing these characteristics, for example, pitch and rhythm, they will be strengthened by this music experience. And as a consequence, when they’re processing these characteristics in speech, they will also enjoy a benefit from that enhanced processing. So, in fact, in our lab, we have done two studies that examine that exact questions. So we were able to recruit nine-month-old babies and assign them randomly to be either to complete a fairly intensive in lab music intervention for about a month versus a control that didn’t do that music intervention. And then after that month period of time, we measured these baby’s neural processing for music as well as speech sounds. And we have measured so far a different part of their brains. And the results so far have both indicated that this music intervention in the lab, indeed, were able to strengthen the baby’s neural processing of speech.

 

Amy

 

That’s incredible. I love it. I say that all the time. I love it. Well, we are going to take a quick minute and we will be right back.
The Growing Up Brainy podcast is brought to you by smallTalk. smallTalk allows your baby to engage with foreign language through play. This interactive language exposure during infancy results and what we like to call brain magic. Wiring your little one’s brain with the building blocks of a new language and getting them a different and better brain for a lifetime. Look for our first product, the smallTalk Egg, launching this fall of 2021.

 

So we’ve talked a lot about what is going on in baby’s brain. And one question we get a lot from parents is how do we know that? So how do we know that what we’re doing for our babies actually has an impact when we ourselves can’t truly see immediate results and we surely can’t see what’s happening inside of our babies’ brains. So can you give us a little bit of insight? Can you talk a little bit about how you measure the impact that music has on a baby’s development? And let us kind of have a picture of how you’ve done these studies.

 

Christina

 

Yes, this is how to measure babies. It’s one of my favorite topics. And I can go on and on all day about it. But there are so many clever ways that researchers have developed to measure babies over the decades. And so some of the more traditional classic ones involved eliciting specific behaviors from babies. So, for example, you know, when they were training babies a little bit to always turn their head when they hear a difference in the sound, and that head turn became a robust indicator of whether a baby can hear a difference in sound and that becomes a way of measuring. Then they can switch the sounds around and then the researchers can know which sounds the babies can actually hear a difference in versus not. And so these very classic behavior measurements, the issue with them is that it takes a lot of time. And also for babies, there are a lot of babies, about seven months old. They just couldn’t be trained because they’re seven months old. And so you lose a lot of babies in these procedures. And so thanks To advancement in technology, and these days we can actually just start measuring more directly in how babies brains are responding to different sounds without having to ask them to perform certain behaviors. Right. So these methods become more we call passive so babies can just sit there and listen while we measure what’s happening in their brain. So you probably have heard like functional FMRI or FNIRS for functional near-infrared spectroscopy. And these methods actually look at how much blood flow is in the brain and methods that I use, for example, that EEG or NBG that stands for electro or magnetoencephalography. Those actually look at the electrical signals that comes from the brain as we’re using these neurons and neurons communicate with each other through electric potentials. So that’s those are the signals that we are capitalizing on. So it still takes very careful experimental design. It’s not like we just put the sensors on them and we immediately know what’s going on. There’s many ways for us to design very cool experiments to probe these questions that we’re interested in and instead of asking a lot from the babies. So these methods tend to ask a lot about for the researchers to spend a lot of time to process the data and eventually get to the cool questions that we’re trying to answer.

 

Amy

 

Awesome. And then from a more kind of a step back point of view, thinking like if a parent has their baby participate in one of these experiences, experiments, what should mom and baby expect? Like what are they experiencing? Is this invasive? Is it enjoyable? What’s the experience like from their point of view?

 

Christina

 

So I can probably only speak to our own lab? Yeah, yeah, sure. And the methods that we use are totally silent and noninvasive. And, you know, we rehearse our procedures so much for it to be a seamless process for both parents and the babies so that, you know, the babies are always happy and entertained. We have a lot of experienced research assistants to use all sorts of toys to keep the babies attended and hopefully happy and calm and, they flow through different procedures just step by step through our process. And I would say, you know, parents, generally enjoy coming to our lab for experiments. And we’re so appreciative of all the families who support our research, but we try as hard as we can to make it a fun experience for them as well.

 

Amy

 

So, Christina, we always like to end our episodes by asking for some practical tips for parents. So those parents listening out there, we have heard about these connections between music and language. We’ve talked about how important they are for our baby’s development. So to the parents listening, can you give us some ways that they can use this information in their daily lives with their children?

 

Christina

 

Yeah, I think, you know, Amy, music, it’s such a natural thing for us as humans and it’s probably why it’s been with humans for thousands and thousands of years. So I would say just be natural and use music as a way to play with the babies and bond with the babies. And we’ve talked about, you know, the science behind those. But you really don’t need to be a musician to do any of that. We’ve got a lot of concerned parents before, you know, saying, I’m not trained in music and I still do it? And of course, everybody can sing and dance. And these are the most natural things I think parents can do with their babies.

 

Amy

 

That’s true. And that’s consistent with what we talked about. Actually, in our last episode, we talked with a NICU music therapist about the value of lullabies and also touched on that topic of they still love Mom’s voice, dad’s voice, even if it’s not coming from a professional musician. And there’s so much value in that connection and that bonding. We also talked about, specifically, with lullabies and how having one voice or one instrument and keeping it simple and calm is a great way to prepare a baby for sleep times. But what about playtime? What kind of music might parents introduce or enjoy with their child when they’re at playtime and not worried about calming them down for sleep?

 

Christina

 

Yes. So what we’ve talked about today, mostly for me, I have the older baby in mind, right? That’s what I focus on studying. But yes, music does have served the purpose also as in calming the babies down for the younger babies when they’re sleeping a lot. So you can see all these variations in music styles and all that. But for, you know, older babies who tend to be awake a little bit more and wants to play, I think just any, you know, a little bit rhythmic happy songs in general that gets baby’s attention. I think any music is really great in my mind. There’s really no hierarchy of music and anything that provides a way for parents to play with their babies would be great.

 

Amy

 

I love that. So parents can bring their own style into it when it’s playtime, which is great. And a little bit even further there. You mentioned earlier in this conversation that by the time a baby is in later infancy going into one-year-old, they lose the ability to differentiate musical sounds and rhythms from different cultures if they haven’t been exposed to them. So is there any value of parents introducing that in these early months that any tips there for baby’s first year?

 

Christina

 

Yeah, I say, you know, if parents can if they know multicultural music, I would say definitely play as much music and rich environment in the context of music. That would be great.

 

Amy

 

Awesome. Thank you so much, Christina, for sharing your time and your expertize with us today. It is so fun to hear the science that is behind the scenes of what we see in our babies and what we feel in ourselves when we’re experiencing music with them. So to our audience today, the moral of the story is that all music is great. We have different styles for different goals, different reasons. Some of it’s great for nap time, some of it’s great for playtime. And most of all, just use it as a bonding experience and experiment to discover what your baby loves. And if you have that opportunity to bring in different cultures, that’s great. But as always, don’t stress that’s always most important to do what comes most naturally between you and your little one. And we’re just here to give you tips on how to do that in unique ways.

 

Well, that is all we have for you today. Thanks so much for joining us on growing up Brainy. Till next time we hope you’ll subscribe, leave us a review or best of all, follow smallTalk.tech on Instagram to join in the conversation.

Growing Up Brainy is brought to you by smallTalk. smallTalk allows your baby to engage with foreign language through play. This interactive language exposure during infancy results in what we like to call brain magic-- wiring your little one’s brain with the building blocks of a new language and gaining them a different and better brain for a lifetime. Look for our first product, the smallTalk Egg, launching this fall of 2021.

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