Babies watching a live baby opera were significantly more engaged and their heart rates more in sync than those watching a recording of the same show identical to the live version, researchers have found.
The findings suggested that babies too feel the impact of being at a live show, through both musicians’ interactions with an audience and the social experience of being in a crowd, the study from the University of Toronto Scarborough, Canada, said.
Baby opera is an online mash-up of animation and live-action performances made especially for under four year olds.
“It speaks to the shared experience,” said Laura Cirelli, assistant professor in the department of psychology and co-author of the study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.
“Their heart rates were speeding up and slowing down in a similar fashion to other babies watching the show.
“Those babies were dealing with all these distractions in the concert hall, but still had these uninterrupted bursts of attention,” she said, recalls moments when a calm would sweep over the babies, and other times when a change in pitch or vocal riff would excite them all.
Socialisation is known to be crucial during childhood development as the infant’s brain is laying the groundwork for future life skills and abilities as it grows.
Cirelli says music can play a powerful part in making those important bonds.
“This audience study shows that even in a community context, infants are engaging with the music and connecting to their fellow audience members,” she said.
The researchers examined the responses of 120 babies aged six to 14 months as they watched a children’s opera performed at a concert hall. 61 babies watched in-person, while 59 watched a recording.
Their responses were recorded using heart monitors and tablets and then examined for when the babies looked at the stage versus when they looked away.
The researchers found that the live performance captured their attention for 72 per cent of the 12-minute show while the recording held their attention for 54 per cent. The live show also had them continually watching for longer bouts of time.
“Even little babies who may or may not have experienced music in a community context before are already engaging more when it’s delivered this way,” said Cirelli.
That’s not to say babies find virtual performances boring, the researchers said.
Studying babies watching recordings at home over Zoom during the pandemic, they found that they paid as much attention as those attending the live event, but they were more likely to get distracted throughout and have shorter bursts of attention.
“The babies watching at home didn’t have the distraction of being in a new place, they were in their comfort zone. But even without distractions the quality of their attention was still not nearly as strong as the audience in the live condition,” she said.