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Impacts of Music on Babies In Womb

This human relationship to sound starts early. The fetus begins to develop an auditory system between seventeen and nineteen weeks. Already, we are in a world of sound, of breath and heartbeat, of rhythm and vibration. But how do we know what the fetus actually hears? Until recently, there were different theories. Some doctors thought that the fetus could hear only some frequencies, probably high ones. It certainly wasn't known whether we could hear and respond to music before birth until the groundbreaking research of Sheila Woodward, a South African, who wanted to know more about musical sound in the womb. She was a young scientist in the early 1990's — and pregnant; she wondered what music her own child was being exposed to before birth. In her studies at the University of Capetown, she worked with the Institute of Maritime Technology to adapt an underwater microphone so it could be placed in the uterus.

Her team came up with a tiny waterproof hydrophone, about two inches long, that doctors found safe enough to put inside the womb. As part of Woodward's research, this miniature microphone was inserted through the cervix into the uterus of a mother in early labor and placed alongside the neck of the unborn child. The mic recorded exactly what was audible inside the uterus as Woodward played music, sang herself, and had the mother sing. "The big question," she says, "was, 'Does music really exist in the womb and is it very different from the way we hear it in the outside world?'"

Just because the sound of music exists in the womb doesn't necessarily mean that the fetus hears it. Yet, the "startle response" of the fetus was measured as well, and Woodward's team found that when music is played, the fetal heart rate becomes slightly elevated. Woodward says it was clear from the fetus reacted, as if to say, "Something's happened and now there's music!" Other studies show that even if only the mother hears music — if she has headphones on, and it is music that she finds soothing — the baby's heart rate lowers while the mother is listening. If the mother finds a certain piece of music stressful, the baby's heart rate goes up. So the fetus is echoing the mother's response to the quality of the music.

Woodward is convinced that we begin learning about music even before birth. She points out that even when music that can penetrate the womb is absent, the fetus is surrounded by those natural rhythms of the body — heartbeat and pulse and breath.

Less recently, archaeologists have discovered ancient flutes — one of which is presumed to be the oldest musical instrument in the world — that play a scale similar to the modern Western scale.