A study at the University of Leicester in the UK, to be shown on BBC's Child Of Our Time today at 9pm, reveals for the first time that babies remember sounds they heard in the womb -- and recognize them well into later life.
The study, by Dr. Alexandra Lamont from the Music Research Group at the University's School of Psychology, demonstrates how one-year old babies recognize music they were exposed to up to three months before birth.
The discovery explodes the theory that babies can only remember things for a month or two -- and suggests that memory could last a great deal longer than that.
This provides important new evidence for the influence of nurture in early child development, said Dr. Lamont, who is a lecturer in psychology.
She said: "We know that the fetus in the womb is able to hear fully only 20 weeks after conception. Now we have discovered that babies can remember and prefer music that they heard before they were born over 12 months later."
The Child Of Our Time study involved a small group of mothers playing a single piece of music to their babies for the last three months before birth.
Dr. Lamont said the music was chosen by the mother -- so all babies heard different pieces of music while still in the womb. These included classical (opera, Mozart and Vivaldi), world (Spirits of Nature), reggae (UB40, Ken Boothe) and pop (Five).
Over 12 months later, eleven of the babies were tested and showed a significant preference for these pieces of music compared with very similar pieces of music they had not heard before.
"After the babies were a year old, they heard the prenatal music and other music that was matched for style, key, pace and loudness. For example, a baby who was exposed to UB40's Many Rivers to Cross before birth heard this piece with another slow reggae track, Freddie McGregor's Stop Lovin' You."
The babies' preference is shown by the amount of time they spend looking toward the source of the music. Their attention is attracted by flashing disco lights, and the music then plays from a loudspeaker next to the light.
When they stop looking in a particular direction, the music stops. The babies quickly learn the association between their looks and the amount of music they get to hear.
None of these babies had been exposed to the prenatal music in the intervening period (i.e., from birth to first birthday). Dr. Lamont says, "This means that the preference found here is based on very long term memory rather than on a memory which is constantly reactivated by later exposure."
A control group of 11 babies tested with the same pieces of music showed no preference for a particular piece -- this means there is nothing about the music itself which is responsible for the preferences found in the prenatal group.
Dr. Lamont said, "This small-scale study suggests that deliberate and extended prenatal exposure to music sets up a very long-term memory trace for a particular piece of music, and that this is recognized and preferred over 12 months later.
"The style of the music is not important -- the babies recognize UB40 just as much as they do Mozart. But the pace of the music seems to be influential -- the babies with faster music like Five's If Ya Gettin' Down or the start of Vivaldi's Four Seasons show stronger preferences than the babies with slower music like Mozart's Adagio for Wind."
This relates to other findings by Dr. Lamont that babies have developed clear preferences for faster and more exciting music by the age of 12 months.
However, these babies' outstanding musical memories are not at all related to their intelligence. Dr. Lamont emphasized that there is no evidence here that playing classical music to babies helps make their brains develop -- the babies perform just as well with pop or reggae music, and the same high levels of musical memory are found in babies from families in which IQ levels differ enormously.
Dr. Lamont plans to explore the longer-term implications of these memory skills over the coming years with the Child Of Our Time babies, to find out how musical taste changes over time and how early music exposure relates to the children's involvement in musical activities later in life.
[Contact: Dr. Alexandra Lamont]