Growing up, my sister and I often battled over musical tastes, respectively blasting Madonna and Springsteen songs from our bedrooms in a stereo war that (since this was well before the days of earbuds) left my unfortunate parents’ ears ringing.
Even when ordered to “turn it down” or face dire consequences, my sister and I vehemently disputed the merits of our preferred artists.
“How can you possibly listen to this stuff?” I would snap. “That dance beat is just a headache in the key of G.”
“At least Madonna can hold a tune,” she would retort. “Springsteen sounds like he’s having surgery without anesthesia.”
In our teenaged fervor, and despite the fact that we both played piano and guitar, nothing could convince us that our music had anything in common. Indeed, the differences became a badge of honor during our not infrequent quarrels.
Yet the old adage that “music is the universal language” is truer than we think — and we learn to speak that tongue well before birth.
Of course, the notion that musical pulse (the steady beat of a song or composition) may be related to the human heartbeat is far from new. But according to celllist, composer and researcher David Teie, the sounds we hear in the womb give our brains a detailed framework for processing music itself, regardless of the wide range of tonalities and rhythms found in our species’ very long and very eclectic playlist.
Whether you’re a fan of classical piano, hip-hop grooves, Javanese gamelan, speed metal guitars, bel canto arias, uilleann pipes, qawwali singing or djembe drums, “there is a fetal origin of the fundamental building blocks of music,” says Teie, author of the acclaimed book “Human Music.”
In his work, which blends musicology and cognitive science, Teie observes that from a sensory perspective the womb is a bit short on stimulation — except when it comes to sound: “We do not have conscious access to our fetal memories, but if we did we would remember there wasn’t much to do in there.”
Amid the lull, however, there’s plenty to engage our developing ears and brains, specifically “pulse, respiration, footfalls, and the mother’s voice,” writes Teie.
Averaging some 77.2 decibels (about as loud as busy street traffic), and almost quadrupled in intensity by the liquids of the womb, that last is “very likely … the first sound” most of us ever heard, Teie points out.
Given frequency differences between consonants and vowels, he said, the maternal voice resembles a kind of humming to the child in utero — a lullaby that also imparts “a predisposition to the linguistic patterns” of a person’s native language, as French researchers discovered.
The mother’s voice is actually “the foundation of melody,” a sequence of musically satisfying notes, “with all of the commonly found features of musical melodies … present in the mother’s voice as it is heard in the womb,” said Teie.
With melodies universally ranging between 200 to 800 Hz, the same frequency span of the maternal voice as heard by pre-born infants, Teie asserts that “the concept of melody itself was created in the developing brains of each of us as we were floating in amniotic fluid.”
But music, like spoken language, isn’t simply an identifiable pattern of frequencies, he adds — rather, it is uniquely crafted sound that evokes an emotional response. While our bodies will continue to grow for years after birth, our limbic system — the neurological structures that primarily govern our emotions — is “almost fully formed at birth,” Teie wrote.
While the mind’s eye cannot recall the sight of the womb — “the depths of the earth” (Ps 139:15) in which each of us were “formed” and “knit” (Ps 139:13) — “the part of our brains that is responsible for emotions remembers the sounds of the womb,” and hears them in new melodies throughout the course of life, Teie said.
With some 73.3 million of the world’s children aborted each year, we need more than ever to still our railing and rhetoric, and to recover the first melody of the human spirit — one that is, as St. John Paul II reminds us, “unique and unrepeatable” for each of us, and one that always, always deserves to be heard.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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