How first notes could rescue your first days

Maria Isabel Garcia
Music is not an insertion in our lives but a fundamental wiring that, once awakened, will help shape the humans that we are

How will you nurse a baby who was born a little too soon?  

My only sister was born a little too soon. She was barely 7 months when she was born, so she had to stay in the hospital for months before it was safe for her to come out and deal with all the rest of the things that the “open” world has to offer. I did not see her until months after she was born. I was told that they had to pump her with a lot of medicine then as part of the regimen for preterm babies. But if she had been born today, that regimen will probably now include music.

In a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of USA (PNAS), they studied the effects of music on preterm babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. The results were positive and highly encouraging and could enhance the way neonatal intensive care units are run. 

The preterm babies listened to 8 minutes of music composed of a soothing background, bells, harp, and punji (charming snake flute) 5 times per week from a gestational age of 33 weeks, and were later put through MRI machines to look at changes in their brain connectivity. Headphones were put on babies who were awake or waking up before or after feeding.  

The researchers found that the preterm newborns who listened to familiar music showed that animated brain regions associated with familiar, pleasant, and arousing music processing. The explanation was that the music had become familiar to the babies, and therefore, more meaningful to the babies. This kind of activation affects other networks of the babies’ brains. 

The same study mentioned that music has already been proven in previous studies to stabilize the breathing and heart rates of preterm babies. It has also been proven helpful in their feeding, weight gain, and quality of sleep – making their sleep more regular as those of adults. Experiments on this involved various configurations of music – live, recorded, instrumental, with lyrics – in varying lengths. But the effect of music on preterm babies while they are in the neonatal intensive care unit has not yet been probed until this study.

The human brain has a network called a “salience network” composed of the anterior insula (AI) and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) forming a vast network that takes care of filtering what you encounter and also connects with other networks to make you decide and also act on what you have decided on. In infants, this is called the “thalamo-salience network.” Salience networks are like “switchboards” in our heads that allow us to daydream, to pay attention, and to control our thoughts and behavioral. Without working salient networks, we will not be able to make sense of and properly respond to what we encounter.

This network is already known to be affected in the brains of adolescents and adults who were born preterm. This means that this “deficit” in the circuitry of preterm babies may have long-term effects. This also means that a baby being born before due time makes her or his brain vulnerable. This is why this discovery that music could help in the connectivity of their salience networks with their other brain regions that have to do with sensory and behavior is highly encouraging. This is also proof once again that not only can we shape our brains with music, but that music can also rescue us from the “accidents of our birth”!

Studies like this one make us realize yet again that music is not an insertion in our lives but a fundamental wiring  that once awakened, will help shape the humans that we are. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at

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