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How the music reaches men ?

Dr Bernard Auriol

The music perceptual learning of a culture gives to the listener a fund of tacit knowledge of the structural outlines of this music. Within Western civilizations the tacit knowledge of the musical scale increases during the years, and this knowledge is applied automatically and unconsciously every time that an adult listens to a piece of music. This phenomenon even gets consequences on the topography of the cerebral cortex : for instance, among the stringed instruments musicians, we note an increased area of representation for the fingers of the left hand, overall if the instrument learning has begun before twelve years old.



Antenatal experience

We could show that the intra-uterine sounds experiences could have some effects on the future behaviour of the children. The foetus can answer to the sounds at least since the second quarter of the pregnancy. The very young babies recognize the voice of their mother. They register the characteristic features of this voice up to the details in the structures of pitch and tonic.

De Casper et coll. have shown (1986) that the passages of a text read in an iterative way during the last quarter of the pregnancy by the future mother, were after the birth the preferred of the baby, compared with other passages which were not read....Children who have listened to a story in a repeated way in the womb of their mother sucked more at the hearing of this story while those who hadn’t been conditioned by this story didn’t make any differences with the other story. Spence and coll. (1987) have shown also that the babies who were accustomed to a story before the birth enjoyed this filtered “low-frequencies” story as much as the same non filtered text, while the babies who hadn’t listened to the story didn’t enjoy the “low-frequencies” filtering.

Perceptive segregation

Children, as well as adults, when they listen to a series of notes alternating quickly between two areas of pitch, share out them into two perceptive trends.


From two months old, children are able to compare – in concrete terms – the pitch of the songs that their mother sings.
We show among adults the equivalence of octave, that consists in setting apart very easily two pairs of sounds of which one of the two is made up of two notes with the octave of the other one, while the second pair is made up of two separated notes by less than one octave. Children can also get it !
As the adults gets a constancy of pitch in the sense that some complex sounds with different harmonic structure are estimated with a same pitch if their fundamental frequencies remain the same : it is the case for a same note sung with the “a” vowel and the “o” vowel successively. Seven or eight months children are able already to combine with accuracy the distinctive vowels that we sing to them.
As well, to eliminate the basic frequency of a coumpound sound doesn’t change its pitch as long as various harmonics are maintained. This is also true for the seven or eight months children ! This preservation of the pitch is becoming more vague when the harmonics are all very distant in frequency from the basic one missing.
With regard to the discrimination of pitches, it has been demonstrated that some seven to ten months children can recognize the direction of a change of pitch for some intervals of less than one half-pitch.

The melodic structure

From two months old, children are able to compare – in concrete terms – the intensity and the melodic outline that their mother sings.
Babies are sensitive to the notable changes of a melody that they were accustomed to listen to.

When we performed a three half pitches transposition (maintaining then the same type of pitch), babies didn’t pay attention to it ; but when the melody, despite this transposition, went through an alteration of its outline, the heartbeat of the babies was going slowly (alarm reaction). For them as for the adults, the mere transposition didn’t give them the feeling of a new melody, whereas the change of outline gave them the perception of another one ! We have shown that the babies like the adults encode and memorize the outline of a melody : also they can note the changes that occur in the intervals and in the levels of pitch, but the outline changes are the more outstanding !

Songs in major mode are easier to encode and to memorize than the other melodies. Is it resulting from the nature of the brain or the cultural surroundings in which it steeps ? We note in the whole cultural areas a strong “disposition” of the octave’s equivalence ( ratio of the frequencies 2/1) and to a lesser degree of the fifth (ratio 2/3). We should point out “the analysis of vocal musics from different countries of the African continent (Ethiopia, Central Africa,Cameroon) has brought to light the existence of “pentatonic” systems in which the melodic outline prevails over the size of the intervals that separate the degrees of the scale”lacito - CNRS).

We notice also in a “relatively universal way” a limitation to seven (or less) of the pitch’s grades included in one octave, this, in accordance with the number of categories in the frame of a perceptual dimension, that the human being can manage (G.Miller, 1956).
From seven or eight months children detect more easily the changes of pitch linked to a transposition in diatonic style than in chromatic style. This difference can be observed from the seven or eight months but these very young children fail to detect these changes if we display to them musical structures of Javanese origin, that indicates a very early cultural integration of the children steeping in the western scales set up on the “half-pitch”. Nevertheless, the complete cultural integration to the western patterns require several years to the child (for instance so as to integrate the tonalities and the mode).


From four months old, children are able to compare – in concrete terms- the rhythmic structure of the melodies that their mother sings.
As the melody remains recognizable in its transpositions of pitch, this same rhythm can receive some changes of tempo without modifying its nature. That just show us how the temporal data are more important in their relationships than in their absolute measure. That explains the fact that the four or five months children tested are more sensitive to the temporal patterns changes than to the absolute lengths of their elements.



Children sing spontaneously from nine or ten months, but since the sixth month they learn to imitate pitches of sound and seem to take pleasure in doing it ; we can see there a pre-established congenital ability with regard to tonal pitches ! From eighteen months, these first games of modulation will be changed in real melodies, recognizable, repeated. From two years old , the child organizes some kind of refrain that he creates and repeats tirelessly with some changes somewhat erratic in the pitch.
For some of them, who are not encouraged in their singing exercises, they loose this ability during the two or three years that follow ! Others, whose parents are more interested by the sounds keep and develop their abilities. Particularly the children of musicians , like the son of Leopold! It can result for the babies an attentively hearing attitude of the music and the fact of singing before beginning to speak ! This confirms the “predictive” features of an outstanding future musical talent (Shuter-Dyson, 1985). A quite extensive survey has shown that the only sign that sets apart statistically the accepted children in the very selective schools of music was the child who had beginning to sing very early.
From two or three years old, they start being able to reproduce with success the outline of two short musical sentences. Then, they will succeed in stringing several sentences approaching more and more the pattern .

It is very progressively that the degrees of the tone scale organize themselves firmly : at four years old the stabilization can be right regarding a musical sentence so as to soar on another tonality on the next sentence. We should wait for five years old so as to note the tonal stability appropriate to our culture, throughout an entire song. It is the golden age for the learning of the nursery rhyme.

Pitch and absolute Ear

The absolute ear is a singular phenomenon, even among musicians. Its frequency is mainly estimated to less than 8% among individuals. Nevertheless, among cultures that encourage an early learning of the music (at present, for instance, in Japan), the frequency of this ability is more important, around 50% ! ! Ogawa et Miyazaki have shown, from a children population between four and ten years, that a training programme by musical keyboard allowed most of the children to gain this ability. Moreover, Takeuchi et Hulse make the assumption that an early learning is necessary, the critical period of integration of this ability ending up around six years old. We can probably deduce from that it requires to be more in line with the structure of the neuron constituents than under the relationships between neurons.This will be a property tied up with the existence of some neurons more than in the relationships that these neurons set up between themselves (synapsis) ! Despite everything, even among adults devoid of this ability, Levitin has noted after the knowledge of a melody by a recording and only one, they sang it with the more or less right level of pitch : the majority of people were around a margin of two half tones with regard to the pitch of reference.....

Melodic outline and Tonality

Children between four and six years old are able to pick up the songs or their imitations using the outline. This is only after seven years old that the tonality becomes a determining factor so as to recognize the melodies and their tonal or atonal imitations.

Some authors have discovered that from five years old, some children, could use the differences of tonalities so as to differentiate some melodies. It was question of melodies of which some were written under scales made up of a lot of notes in common (quite similar scales) and some written under scales made up of few notes in common with them (very different scales).

Children of five years old, as the adult, makes well a distinction between quite similar scales and very different scales. Nevertheless , in the tonal imitations, they fail to detect the changes ocurred in the dimension of the intervals. Children under six years old rely more on the absolute pitch than to the relationships of intervals whereas they meet the requirements of comparison of amplitude in terms of relative rather than absolute amplitude.

Around seven years old, children succeed in setting apart major from minor mode and to notice that a piece has been re-written under a distant cale from the one heart firstly (very unwedged transposition). They show a marked preference for a diatonic melody {mi - sol - si - sol - mi} with regard to its very similar chromatic but not identical opposing view {mi - sol - si# - sol - mi}But nine years old is necessary so as to clearly set apart the familiar version of a melody and its imitations with the same outline.

With regard to the ability to determine the « direction » of a change of pitch, it is a quite late acquired ability unless the failure of these children for this task can be explained by a lack of vocabulary used for answering to it. Whatever it is, mistakes are here a very relevant sign with regard to the school abilities. Failures being extremely good indicators of difficulties. The training of this ability of tonal analysis will guarantee success.

The management of the melodic element of the music is going from a quite roughly management to a more and more cultural integration subtlety. Babies can set apart the outline and produce isolated sounds with a definite pitch. Around five years old the child begins to organize the sound according to marks of tonality (scale) but doesn’t get yet a steady tonal scale that he could use for a transposition from a scale to the other one. The tonal system develops and is appropriate throughout the chilhood up to the adulthood.



In fact rhythmic and melodic data are very connected among child and it is difficult to analyse them separately.
Five or six years old children hardly succeed than at random when it is question of detecting a known melody in which some unknown notes have been inserted. Around nine or ten years old, the situation is getting better, overall if the unknown notes belong to distinctly different pitches from the ones that make up the “hidden” melody.
Giving rhythm to regular compound rhythms is as much easy for a child of five years old as some binary rhythm. But if we include some variable subdivisions within a repetitive rhythm, the subdivisions of binary type are better handled than the ones of compound type. From seven years old the child begins to control this kind of complexity.



The perception of feelings communicated by the music takes place certainly very early and is increasing probably during the school years. Statistically speaking, from four years old children as the adults know how to classify some musical extracts within the labels “joy”, “sadness”, “anger”, “fear”. Nevertheless, they make progress little by little, recognizing firstly the joy, then the sadness and the anger and after the fear. The difference between the anger and the fear remains even uncertain up to and included during the aduldhood.
joy > sadness > {anger and fear}
It is only from seven/eight years that the children make a worthy link between joy and major mode, sadness and minor mode.
The correlation that links up the rising in pitch and the joy and the one that joins up the decreasing and the sadness clearly appears, in the verbal multiple choice, than among adults! Nevertheless, even three years old children are inclined towards bringing together happy or neutral faces drawings to pieces in major mode and the drawings of sad or anger faces towards pieces in minor mode. This trend is lengthening up to twelve years old.


The music abilities begin to take root from birth- and before- they take shape within a slowly cultural integration and bloom themselves at the expense of a lot of work ! This work should take place before nine years old, because after, the music abilities are inclined towards steadiness.

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Psychosonique Yogathérapie Psychanalyse & Psychothérapie Dynamique des groupes Eléments Personnels

© Copyright Bernard AURIOL (email : )

1 Mars 2006