“Music has essential benefits for the first phase of life” Emmanuel Bigand


Emmanuel Bigand is a teacher-researcher, a senior member of the Institut Universitaire de France since 2007 and holder of the Chair of Music Cognition and Brain. He is also a professional double bass player (First Prize at the Versailles Regional Conservatory) and a cellist.

He is the author of several reference books: “Les bienfaits de la musique sur le cerveau” and “Le cerveau mélomane”. He has also co-written “Musique et cerveau”, “Percevoir la musique : une activité cognitive” and recently published “La symphonie neuronale” with Barbara Tillmann. The latter book is featured in our reading corner.

We had the privilege of interviewing him about the unsuspected benefits of music on the cognitive development of toddlers.

You are both a researcher and a musician. How did you come up with the idea of examining the impact of music on the brain ?

Emmanuel Bigand : Quite naturally. I practised music as a child. Then I became interested in psychology and in particular the effects of the environment on psychological functioning. I realised that nobody had studied music from this angle.

There was a precursor in France, Robert Francès, who worked in Paris at the CNRS and who had written a thesis. Apart from that, there was little information on the subject. So I was interested in tackling this question.

Musicians know the effects of music well, but they describe them with their intuitions. It was necessary for me to look at what these intuitions correspond to. How does this translate into the brain in concrete terms ?

What are the effects of music on cognitive development during the first 1000 days ?

Emmanuel Bigand : The essential care is affective and emotional. We don’t always measure what this means. For an adult, care means that when I am sad, someone comes to console me. It is associated with a kind of psychological comfort.

For a child, it’s about survival and good biological development. The children, when they are very small, must invest all their energy in the maturation of their neuro-physiological system. All the energy lost in emotions that they cannot manage is energy that will not go into their proper development.

So for them, emotional discomfort is a real destroyer of the structure they are putting in place. In other words, an infant who lives in an unstable emotional environment – we currently have the example of the war in Ukraine, but it can also be domestic violence – will be confronted with emotions for which the brain is not ready. The brain can then secrete cortisol. This is the only reaction it has. Cortisol is neurotoxic.

If the baby is not well taken care of, it can have a harmful effect on the brain he/she is developing. So the first fundamental role of music is to contribute to this setting up and to this emotional care by regulating emotions, but also by modifying the adult’s behaviour towards the baby.

It is essential that adults adopt a different emotional behaviour with a baby than the one they have with other adults. We are not going to look after a mature tree in the same way as we look after a shoot. Music plays that role.

We believe that humans have developed this activity because it has essential benefits for this first phase of life.

I will now return to the cognitive aspect. This socio-affective action of music will also benefit the cognitive system. The child will develop a communicative musicality with the adult. And to be able to communicate through musical games, the child will have to set up neuronal games which are fundamental.

Does music have a beneficial effect on the foetus?

Emmanuel Bigand : What studies show about the foetus is often misunderstood. We think that there is a golden age, life in the womb, and that there is a desire to return to this golden age of the human being

In reality, fetuses are preparing for an environment. They have innate predispositions. They try to develop their predispositions by picking up “postcards” from the outside. Music is one of these postcards.

The action of music is twofold: in the affective regulation, the communication of benevolence; then, in the implementation and stimulation of cognitive neural networks. The psycho-affective aspect is fundamental. We tell children “everything is fine, you can grow up”. At the same time, we give them the keys to communication with which they will be able to interact with humans.

The reactions of fetuses biologically prove that they have an orientation towards music. For example, they memorise musical intervals in very precise ways. It is as if they sense that this mode of communication through sound games will play an essential role in their development and life.

We cannot understand the information processing capacities of the foetus if we do not take into account the finality, namely this aptitude to be able to identify the modes of human communication that will be essential for its survival. This is what a foetus does before birth.

In your latest book, “La symphonie Neuronale”, you put forward the hypothesis that music plays a role as a precursor to language. There is a very strong link between the two.

Emmanuel Bigand: In order to be able to communicate with someone else through language, the other person must first exist as a being with whom we are in relationship. This is what music allows. It builds a relationship with others long before language is formed.

If you don’t have that relationship, language is useless.

Of course, the latter has such high adaptive stakes that the brain invests neurons in it. All the networks that are set up prefigure organisations that will be reused for language.

So the musical games, the sound games that we play with the baby are already games that prepare the ground on which the capacity for language will develop for two reasons.

  1. They indicate that there is someone on the other side to communicate with. This is fundamental.
  2. They give the keys to the essential structures of communication.

Music really prepares the emergence of language.

What do you mean by musical games ?

Emmanuel Bigand : The intentionality of communicating with the other is translated into sounds by games of anticipation, surprise and resolution of surprise. As always, you have to create an expectation and a resolution of the expectation. And you don’t need to have semantic meaning to do this.

You can do it with a baby from birth.

Here’s a simple example. If you make “tu tu tu tu”, the baby has understood that there is nothing interesting. It is the same sound that is repeated. If you say “tu tu tu ti”, the “ti” sound is interesting because there were three “tu” sounds before.

And now, if I do “tu tu tu tu ti tu tu tu tu tu tu”, with these rhythm games and these sounds whose interest changes according to the context, we lay the foundations of the syntax. And you can do this with a newborn baby: it works straight away!

Syntax is about understanding information in a broad context. Music allows us to do this immediately. As we do not go through the signifier, we do not go through complex symbolic units (words). We set up the neural architecture much more quickly. Then the child will develop this with symbolic units that have meaning (language).

With sound games, I tell the baby “I’m here, I’m taking care of your emotional needs” and at the same time I stimulate the cognitive networks. It is this double action that is fundamental and magical throughout childhood. Especially in the first 1000 days because language is not yet there. So all the non-linguistic actions are essential.

Also in “La symphonie Neuronale”, you talk about musicalising interactions with children, the world of childhood and education. How can we, as parents, musicalise interactions with the child ?

Emmanuel Bigand : The first thing to understand is that music for the child is not music as we, as adults, understand it. What the child wants is communication with the other.

A mother recently said to me: “I sing out of tune. Is it better that I don’t sing for my baby because otherwise I’ll distort his ear?” It hurts my heart to hear that. What the baby wants is just a mother who loves him/her. It doesn’t matter if she sings out of tune.

The young child wants sincere communication. It doesn’t matter if the mother or father sings right. There are plenty of experiences that show this.

Parents must forget the complexes of the adult world. You really have to let yourself go. We are actually talking about musical communication, which is the primary function of music.

If you scold a child, do it with music. “You haven’t tidied your room” or “stop putting your hand in the jam”. If you say it in music, it will go down a thousand times better.

It will change the way you scold the child. Music changes the adult. The adult changes his mode of communication and puts himself more in touch with the child.

And by doing that, the adult will give the semantic information, but at the same time say “I love you”. So we keep in touch. When we use authority, we must not lose contact with the child. Music also helps with this.

In a webinar you hosted, you said that doing two hours of music a week is beneficial. There’s no need to do too much.

Emmanuel Bigand : That applies to the nursery sections. Often, we want children to make music for their own good, and we immediately have the conservatory model, i.e. a very demanding school that trains professionals.

That’s not what we say as scientists. If you do music workshops, 2 hours can be enough to have beneficial effects. A homeopathic practice of music can have effects.

As scientists, we can be very critical of conservatories that teach music as a dead language. It should be learned as a living language. We are much more convinced by the workshop methods, the fanfares: the free, active methods of practising music.

In the first 1000 days, it’s a bit different. Music has this role of taking charge of emotions. It is the social link. It is benevolence. So there we have to be more generous. But it is music that can be more spontaneous.

I’ll give you an example. I was working in a nursery and there was a child who was crying for his mother, which is quite common. We made a song about the mother who was not there. We started to musicalise the situation. It goes down a thousand times better.

Does music have a beneficial influence on children’s school skills ?

Emmanuel Bigand : You don’t have to make children play music to improve their academic ability. Sometimes, we scientists, are not clear enough. You have to make music for children because they want to knead this sound paste.

And if we do that, music will have positive effects on their intellectual development. We did a meta-analysis with my colleague Barbara Tillmann on more than 6000 children. The gain in terms of improved academic and cognitive performance with 2 hours of music per week is as great as doing homework.

Your research highlights that the relationship between motor gesture and sound production seems to have an effect on brain plasticity. Can you tell us a bit more about this ?

Emmanuel Bigand : Gesture-sound interactions are essential. Our brain is designed to act. And all the sensory feedback on this action is really essential to refine the gesture.

When you have deaf children who are implanted, the first thing they do once they have the implant is to explore the sound environment through games.

Music offers this chance to make a coupling with action. And a child needs action. But music will structure, refine, develop this action, while at the same time stimulating the ear and stimulating the neural networks associated with the ear, sound processing and language. Yes, there is a magical interaction.

The other interaction that is magical is if two children make sounds together. They will have to coordinate. This coordination, compared to other sensory actions, has a particular characteristic: temporality. When we talk together, there is a synchronisation in the exchanges. If we play with each other, we have to manage this temporality. And in music, the management of this temporality can go as far as great precision. This precision requires resources from the neural networks. And so the brain gets involved. It’s a bit like when you play football. In football, you need good precision.

With music we can take all the sounds we want, we can do all the things we want, but there is still this temporality. Music is very demanding in terms of managing temporality – as can be the case with sport – but it adds this dimension of sound.

A final recommendation for parents ?

Emmanuel Bigand : You have to forget the musical model that adults have. It doesn’t matter if the sound produced on a pan is beautiful or not. What is essential is that it is a communication that works for a child. If you watch children playing football, it is not beautiful if you have the model of Mbappe or Zidane.

The other problem is that children have a lot of musical skills that adults don’t see. For example, a child who sings out of tune, if you look closely, is reproducing a melody that he has heard on the radio only once. He or she is demonstrating a musical ability that the adult may not see at all.

Children’s musical abilities are not seen by many people. But we need to hear these musical behaviours. Don’t wait for the child to play Mozart to say : “this one is really musical!”.

Would you like to know more ?