Date Published: February 2, 2017
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Tik-Sze Carrey Siu, Him Cheung, Linda Chao.
Emerging evidence has indicated infants’ early sensitivity to acoustic cues in music. Do they interpret these cues in emotional terms to represent others’ affective states? The present study examined infants’ development of emotional understanding of music with a violation-of-expectation paradigm. Twelve- and 20-month-olds were presented with emotionally concordant and discordant music-face displays on alternate trials. The 20-month-olds, but not the 12-month-olds, were surprised by emotional incongruence between musical and facial expressions, suggesting their sensitivity to musical emotion. In a separate non-music task, only the 20-month-olds were able to use an actress’s affective facial displays to predict her subsequent action. Interestingly, for the 20-month-olds, such emotion-action understanding correlated with sensitivity to musical expressions measured in the first task. These two abilities however did not correlate with family income, parental estimation of language and communicative skills, and quality of parent-child interaction. The findings suggest that sensitivity to musical emotion and emotion-action understanding may be supported by a generalised common capacity to represent emotion from social cues, which lays a foundation for later social-communicative development.
As adults we see one another as mentalistic agents whose behaviour is driven by intention, emotion, and belief. We thus routinely represent others’ inner thoughts and feelings so as to interpret and predict their action. Infant research using spontaneous-response tasks has established that such a mentalising ability emerges much earlier than we have thought (see  for a recent comprehensive review). The early development of mental state attribution suggests its fundamental role in social interaction. We can easily imagine how futile, or even embarrassing, an interaction could go if we fail to keep track of others’ mental states. Hence we constantly update others’ emotions and beliefs so that we can respond tactfully for maintaining positivity within groups .
We obtained three findings in the present study. First, 20-month-olds, but not 12-month-olds, were sensitive to emotional incongruence between musical and facial expressions, suggesting an awareness of emotion behind music. Second, these 20-month-olds were also able to use an actress’s emotional facial-vocal display to predict her subsequent grasping action. The 12-month-olds failed to do this. Finally, sensitivity to emotion in music was associated with emotion-action understanding for the 20- but not 12-month-olds. This association in the older infants has a certain degree of specificity because neither the music test nor the emotion-action test sensitivity score correlated with any of the more general variables of family income, parental estimation of language and communicative skills, and quality of parent-child interaction.