Infants relax in response to unfamiliar foreign lullabies


Music is characterized by acoustic forms that are predictive of its behavioural functions. For example, adult listeners accurately identify unfamiliar lullabies as infant-directed on the basis of their musical features alone. This property could reflect a function of listeners’ experiences, the basic design of the human mind, or both. Here, we show that US infants (N = 144) relax in response to eight unfamiliar foreign lullabies, relative to matched non-lullaby songs from other foreign societies, as indexed by heart rate, pupillometry and electrodermal activity. They do so consistently throughout the first year of life, suggesting that the response is not a function of their musical experiences, which are limited relative to those of adults. The infants’ parents overwhelmingly chose lullabies as the songs that they would use to calm their fussy infant, despite their unfamiliarity. Together, these findings suggest that infants may be predisposed to respond to common features of lullabies found in different cultures.

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Fig. 1: Structure of the experiment.
Fig. 2: Lullabies reduce infant heart rate.
Fig. 3: Pupil dilation is reduced during lullabies.
Fig. 4: Lullabies attenuate increases in arousal.
Fig. 5: Parents prefer foreign lullabies to non-lullabies for soothing their own infants.

Data availability

All data reported here are available at Stimuli are available at Audio excerpts from the Natural History of Song Discography are available at; the full corpus can be explored interactively at For assistance with data or materials, please contact M.B., C.M.B. and S.A.M.

Code availability

A reproducible version of this manuscript, including all analysis and visualization code, is available at For assistance with code, please contact M.B., C.M.B. and S.A.M.


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We thank the infants and parents who participated in this research; J. Kominsky, N. Soja, W. Pepe, E. Spelke and S. Carey for their support with participant recruitment; H. Alton, A. Bergson, A. Bitran, G. Jessani, A. Keomurjian and B. Milosh for research assistance; and C. Payne and three anonymous reviewers for detailed and constructive feedback on the manuscript. This research was supported by the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award DP5OD024566, the Harvard University Department of Psychology and the Harvard Data Science Initiative. The funders had no role in the conceptualization, design, data collection, analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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S.A.M., S.A. and C.M.B. designed the research, supported with ideas from A.M. J.Y., C.M.B. and S.A. led data collection, assisted by M.B., L.Y., K.L. and F.X., under the supervision of S.A.M. M.B., J.S. and S.A.M. analysed the data. J.S. and S.A.M. designed the pupil annotation method. S.A.M. provided funding. M.B., J.Y., C.M.B. and S.A.M. wrote the manuscript, and all authors approved it.

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Correspondence to Constance M. Bainbridge or Mila Bertolo or Samuel A. Mehr.

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Bainbridge, C.M., Bertolo, M., Youngers, J. et al. Infants relax in response to unfamiliar foreign lullabies. Nat Hum Behav (2020).

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