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Playing the Indian snake charmers’ flute could boost premature babies’ brain development

Playing the Indian snake charmers’ flute to premature babies in intensive care ‘helps them develop outside of the womb’

  • Researchers from the University of Geneva tested their theory in a hospital 
  • Newborns were played music from a punji snake flute, a harp, or bells 
  • Babies played music had stronger nerve connections across their brains
  • Their brains were more like healthy babies’ than those who didn’t hear music  

Playing an Indian snake charmer’s flute to a premature baby could help its brain develop properly, according to scientists.

Babies born weeks before their due date are at risk of serious brain damage, which can leave them lagging behind as they grow older.

Part of the reason for this, scientists said, is because they have to be kept in intensive care and are separated from their mothers immediately after birth.

But playing music to premature babies can help the connections in their brains form to look more like those of a healthy infant, improving their ability to understand what’s happening around them.

And the punji – a traditional Indian instrument which sounds similar to a Scottish bagpipe – was found to have the strongest effect.

Premature babies who are played music – particularly that of the Indian snake charmer’s flute, the punji (pictured) – were found to have brain development more similar to a full-term baby’s than other premature infants who didn’t listen to music (stock image)

Researchers from the University of Geneva in Switzerland tested their theory by playing music to premature babies, then comparing them to premature babies who didn’t hear music and babies born after full-term.

They used MRI brain scans to see if there were any differences in the brain, and found babies in the music group were better developed.

Their brains looked more like those of healthy full-term babies, when compared to the premature infants who were not played any music.

‘The instrument that generated the most reactions was the Indian snake charmers’ flute, the punji,’ said Lara Lordier, a PhD student at the University Hospital of Geneva.

‘Very agitated children calmed down almost instantly, their attention was drawn to the music.’

Three types of music were tested on the babies – songs played with the punji, a harp or with bells.


Geneva researchers found playing music to premature babies while they’re in intensive care strengthens the nerve connections between different areas of the brain. 

The salience network, which helps someone make sense of what they see and hear, was most affected.

Scientists in New York, at Beth Israel Hospital, in 2013 published research showing music could improve premature babies’ heart and lung function.

They found playing slow, soothing music slowed the heartbeat of stressed infants and increased the amount of oxygen in their blood.

It also improved the babies ability to suck and made them better able to feed properly.

One scientist suggested certain types of music – particularly that made to sound like lullabies  – may improve premature babies’ development because it sounds like what they would hear in the womb.

Babies who weren’t played any music had weaker connections between different areas of the brain, the scientists found – an effect of their premature birth.

These connections were most damaged in the brain’s salience network, which absorbs information and experiences and tries to make sense of it.

‘This network is essential, both for learning and performing cognitive tasks as well as in social relationships or emotional management,’ said Ms Lordier.

In the UK, around 60,000 babies are born prematurely each year – this is approximately one in 13 pregnancies ending before the 37th week. 

While babies born at full-term get to spend time with their mothers and learn how to react to different things by learning from her, premature babies may not.

They may instead have to be kept alone in a room full of strange noises and sights with no way to learn how to react to them, the researchers suggested.

The Swiss researchers’ work was published in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Past research has found playing music to premature babies can slow their heart rate when stressed and help them to breathe easily.

Scientists at Beth Israel Hospital in New York tested the effects of music on 272 premature babies and published their research in 2013.

They found playing slow, soothing music also improved babies ability to feed as well as improving breathing and circulation.

One of the researchers at the time said music could mimic sounds babies hear in the womb, making them feel more comfortable.