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Does Development of the Fetus Include Hearing Voices and Music?

I think that many of us have seen in-person or seen a picture of a pregnant mother-to-be talking or reading to her unborn child. For many of us, it is a touching scene.Others may think that the mother is wasting her time and breath trying to communicate with the baby in the womb. However, there has been a number of scholarly research studies produced that indicates that some type of prenatal learning can take place. There is some credible evidence that the baby (fetus) in the womb can hear voices and music, as well as learn some extremely basic knowledge.

Let’s face it, it is not easy testing whether a fetus in the womb can hear and recognize sound or voices outside of the womb. You cannot just ask the newly born baby something like “Hey, do you recognize my voice?”  or “I played music over and over, so how do you like Mozart?”  Needless to say, you cannot expect a recognizable answer. Scientists have to find some other way to detect or measure the ability of the unborn fetus to react to “external stimuli” (sound or sound waves).

Many of the research studies use "habituation" as a factor in determining if the fetus can hear or react to outside influences. Basically, habituation is the medical term referring to the ability of the fetus to stop responding to a repeated stimulus (like a SPECIFIC ultrasound frequency wave or noise).

This paragraph is our attempt at an easy-to-understand interpretation of how habituation is used to determine fetus hearing and learning. If we could read the thoughts of the fetus, probably the fetus would be thinking something like this: It is so warm, dark, and comfortable in my mom’s womb. It feels sooooooooo good. I get all that I can eat and drink with this cord attached to me. I sleep so well here. It is kind of noisy at times with my mom’s heart beating and other natural sounds. However, I am use to it. This is a GREAT environment.  The key thought / statement is “I am use to it” referring to the noise. The baby has learned to accept the natural sounds of the womb. Habituation is the medical term given to the process of forming a habit. The fetus becomes “use to” what is going on in the womb because as a matter of “habit” the fetus hears and feels the same old thing every day in the womb.

Here is where “habituation” is used to test whether the fetus can hear AND learn ANYTHING new while in the womb. Remember, the fetus is content within all that is happening within the womb. Nothing much really bothers the fetus because the fetus has learned to recognize all that is taken place around him/her for months. So, what happens when some kind of external sound is introduced to the fetus that the fetus has never heard before?  What has happened in a number of scholarly research studies is that physicians/scientists have used “external stimuli” (sound waves through speakers or something like an ultrasound transducer). The fetal heart rate increased when the fetus heard the new sounds. The fetus is bothered by the new noise that it has not recognized until now. What is very interesting is that after repeated exposure to the same sound after a period of time, the fetus learns to get use to the sound. The fetus learns that the newly introduced sound is now just part of all the other natural sounds that is familiar to the fetus. The fetal heart rate returns to normal after repeated exposure, over time, to the “external stimuli.”

Probably by now, you know where this report is heading. There have been some scholarly research studies that have used the mother’s voice as the “external stimuli” (sound waves). A number of these research studies show that “A newborn human shows preference for his/her mother’s voice and to musical pieces, to which he/she was previously exposed, indicating a capacity to learn while in utero” (Gerhardt & Abrams, 2000). Farther down this web page, we list quite a few research studies that have found similar findings.

When doing the research, we became aware that there are companies or some people that are saying that there are devices that will play music or some such information so that the fetus will learn valuable knowledge and skills that carries with the infant, post birth. Based on the information that we can find and statements from experts, this simply is not true or at least there is NO scientific evidence to prove this theory. There is no scientific proof that what the fetus learns in the womb will increase the baby’s intelligence or skills after birth. Yes, there is evidence that the fetus responds to external stimuli and appears to “recognize” the mother’s or father’s voice, BUT this is far from the brain being developed enough to learn much more complex knowledge. There is no definite scientific evidence that playing specific music while the fetus is still in the womb, will result in the child being able to perform specific complicated skills long after birth.

We ran across an old study that incorporated a very small sample of pregnant women who were asked to read to their unborn child. Some of the mothers dropped out of the study feeling that it was worthless to read and talk to the fetus. However, the mothers who went on with the study felt otherwise. It appears that more and more parents are feeling the same way as the mothers who continued the study and read to their unborn child. “The fetal auditory system (cochlea and brain stem) is capable of detecting and responding to sound by 25 weeks gestational age” (Sandman, Wadhwa, Hetrick, Porto, & Peeke, 1997, p. 1032). The fetus is capable of learning in the womb and recognizing a familiar voice, such as the mother and father. The question that cannot be answered at this time is just HOW MUCH the fetus learns or can learn in the womb, and then retain as a newborn. At this time, most experts believe that not much is retained. However, the research continues because there is a realization that a learning and bonding process DOES take place with the fetus in the womb.

Following is a list of scholarly research studies / journal articles that are about the hearing, growth, development, and learning process of babies in the womb. Some of these articles can be found FREE online. However, some of these might be found in a college library. Many libraries (not all) have the ability to interlibrary the articles, FOR FREE. Simply feel free to ask at the Reference Desk at a library.

Bornstein, M. DiPietro, J., Hahn, C., Painter, K., Haynes, O., & Costigan, K. (2002). Prenatal cardiac function and postnatal cognitive development: An exploratory study. Infancy, 3(4), 475-494.

“Developmentalists are trying to find out if prenatal learning affects later development, and if so, how.” This journal article can be found online FREE at


DeCasper, A.J., Lecaneut, J., Busnel, M., Granier-DeFerre, C., & Maugeais, R. (1994). Fetal reactions to recurrent maternal speech. Infant Behavior and Development, 17 (2), 159-164.

“In one classic study, pregnant women recited a short children’s rhyme out loud each day between weeks 33 and 37. In week 38, researchers played a recording of either the same rhyme the mother had been reciting or another rhyme and measured the fetal heart rate. Fetal heart rates dropped during the playing of the familiar rhyme, but not during the unfamiliar rhyme, suggesting that the fetuses had learned the sound patterns of the rhyme.”

DeCasper, A.J., & Spence, M. J. (1986). Prenatal maternal speech influences newborns’ perception of speech sounds. Infant Behavior and Development, 9 (2), 133-150.

“Pregnant women recited a particular speech passage aloud each day during their last 6 weeks of pregnancy. Their newborns were tested with an operant-choice procedure to determine whether the sounds of the recited passage were more reinforcing than the sounds of a novel passage. The previously recited passage was more reinforcing. The reinforcing value of the two passages did not differ for a matched group of control subjects. Thus, third-trimester fetuses experience their mothers' speech sounds and that prenatal auditory experience can influence postnatal auditory preferences.” This article can be found online for FREE at

Gerhardt, K.J., & Abrams, R.M. (2000). Fetal exposures to sound and vibroacoustic stimulation. Journal of Perinatology, 20(8 Pt 2): S 21-30.

“Sounds in the environment of a pregnant woman penetrate the tissues and fluids surrounding the fetal head and stimulate the inner ear through a bone conduction route. The sounds available to the fetus are dominated by low-frequency energy, whereas energy above 0.5 kHz is attenuated by 40 to 50 dB. The fetus easily detects vowels, whereas consonants, which are higher in frequency and less intense than vowels, are largely unavailable. Rhythmic patterns of music are probably detected, but overtones are missing. A newborn human shows preference for his/her mother's voice and to musical pieces to which he/she was previously exposed, indicating a capacity to learn while in utero. Intense, sustained noises or impulses produce changes in the hearing of the fetus and damage inner and outer hair cells within the cochlea. The damage occurs in the region of the inner ear that is stimulated by low-frequency sound energy.”

Hepper, P.G., & Shahidullah, B.S. (1994). Development of fetal hearing. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 71(2): F 81-7.

“Previous research has revealed that the human fetus responds to sound, but to date there has been little systematic investigation of the development of fetal hearing. The development of fetal behavioural responsiveness to pure tone auditory stimuli (100 Hz, 250 Hz, 500 Hz, 1000 Hz, and 3000 Hz) was examined from 19 to 35 weeks of gestational age. Stimuli were presented by a loudspeaker placed on the maternal abdomen and the fetus's response, a movement, recorded by ultrasound. The observed pattern of behavioural responsiveness reflects underlying maturation of the auditory system. The sensitivity of the fetus to sounds in the low frequency range may promote language acquisition and result in increased susceptibility to auditory system damage arising from exposure to intense low frequency sounds.”     The full-text can be found for FREE, online, at

James, D.K., Spencer, C.J. & Stepsis, B.W. (2002). Fetal learning: a prospective randomized controlled study. Ultrasound in Obstetrics & Gynecology, 20(5): 431-8.

If you can only find a couple of articles, then this would be one of the first to find. For a scholarly journal article, the author explains some things in English and not a lot of what I call medicalese. You can understand much of what is being written. The author believes that this study shows that “prenatal music exposure alters the fetal behavioral state and is carried forward to the newborn period. This suggests that a simple form of fetal programming or learning has occurred.”  There are quite a few research studies that prove that the fetus can hear sound from outside the womb. However, there are not many studies (like this one) that will go as far to say that the fetus learns some extremely basic knowledge from inside the womb and carries that knowledge AFTER birth. This article CAN be found FREE online at:


Jardri, R., Houfflin-Debarge, V., Delion, P., Pruvo, J.P., Thomas, P., Pins, D. (2012). Assessing fetal response to maternal speech using a noninvasive functional brain imaging technique. International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience. 30(2), 159-61.

“Evidence for cortical sensory activation in the human fetus at the beginning of the third trimester of pregnancy was provided in a recent imaging study. Although hearing is functional before birth, it is not clear whether recognition of the mother's voice is learned in utero or rapidly following delivery. We developed an original fMRI procedure that allows for the specific exploration of fetal brain response to auditory stimuli. This procedure provides the first in vivo evidence for the development of maternal voice recognition in utero between 33 and 34 weeks of gestation. This methodology could have crucial implications in the study of fetal cognition.”


Joseph, R. (2000). Fetal brain behavior and cognitive development.  Developmental Review, 20 (1), 81-98.

“The fetus responds to sounds with heart rate changes, head turns, and body movements as early as the 25th week of gestation.”


Kisilevsky, B.S., Hains, S.M., Lee, K., Xie, X., Huang, H., Ye, H.H., Zhang, K., & Wang, Z. (2003). Effects of experience on fetal voice recognition. Psychological Science, 14(3): 220-4.

If you are looking for a few experts that continue to research this subject, you may want to keep in mind Kisilevsky. This scientist has published a few scholarly research studies on this topic.   The ability of human fetuses to recognize their own mother's voice was examined. Sixty term fetuses were assigned to one of two conditions during which they were exposed to a tape recording of their mother or a female stranger reading a passage. Voice stimuli were delivered through a loudspeaker held approximately 10 cm above the maternal abdomen and played at an average of 95 dB SPL. Each condition consisted of three 2-min periods: no stimulus, voice (mother or stranger), and no stimulus. Fetal heart rate increased in response to the mother's voice and decreased in response to the stranger's; both responses were sustained for 4 min. The finding of differential behavior in response to a familiar versus a novel voice provides evidence that experience influences fetal voice processing. It supports an epigenetic model of speech perception, presuming an interaction between genetic expression of neural development and species-specific experience.

Krueger, C., Holditch-Davis, D., Quint, S., & DeCasper, A. (2004). Recurring auditory experience in the 28 – to 34-week-old fetus. Infant Behavioral Development, 27(4), 537-543.

“The ability of the fetus to learn like what is mentioned in the 1994 DeCasper study happens between 24 and 38 weeks.”

Lafuente, M., Grifol, R., Segarra, J., Soriano, J., Gorba, M., & Montesinos, A. (1997). Effects of the Firstart method of prenatal stimulation on psychomotor development: The first six months. Pre -& Peri-Natal Psychology Journal, 11 (3), 151-162.

“In one study, pregnant women wore waistbands equipped with speakers through which they exposed their fetuses to an average of 70 hours of classical music per week between 28 weeks of gestation and birth. By age 6 months, the babies who had heard the music were more advanced than control infants in many motor and cognitive skills. Of course, the exact meaning of this result is difficult to assess, but it does suggest that the prenatal sensory environment may be important in later development.”


Moore, R., Vadeyar, S., Fulford, J., Tyler, D., Gribben, C., Baker, P., James, D., & Growland, P. (2001). Antenatal determination of fetal brain activity in response to an acoustic stimulus using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Human Brain Mapping, 12 (2), 94-99.

“Studies using these techniques (MRI) have found that late-term fetuses exhibit neurological as well as behavioral responses to sounds."

Ockleford, E.M., Vince, M.A., Layton, C., & Reader, M.R. (1988). Responses of neonates to parents’ and others’ voices. Early Human Development, 18(1): 27-36.

“Infants stimulated with 8-s recordings of speech and voices reading numbers showed a discrimination between their own mothers' and alien voices. In general, the infants' heart rates rose more in response to their mothers' than to an alien voice. However, infants tested less than 24 h after birth responded with significant heart rate deceleration to the mother's spontaneous speech and to the mother reading numbers. Response to the father's voice was also deceleration but to all alien voices was acceleration. Older infants' responses also tended to be acceleratory to most stimuli. Results support the suggestion that sounds which are repeatedly experienced before birth (especially the mother's voice) become familiar to the fetus so that the neonate responds selectively by orienting to them during the first few hours after birth.”

Righetti, P. (1996). The emotional experience of the fetus: A preliminary report. Pre-& Peri-Natal Psychology Journal, 11(1), 55-65.

From the analysis of the results it is possible to conclude that: 1) The newborn is more capable of recognizing his emotional state with regard to his own mother when compared to an experience with different mother; 2) When presented with another mother’s heart beat,  he only responds to the rhythm of a noise he heard in the past nine months, whereas with his mother he not only responds (reacting or relaxing) but also is capable of recognizing the heart beat and gives more creative responses; 3) It could be hypothesized that in the intrauterine environment different "Prenatal Ego States" exist that make the newborn capable of distinguishing between different emotional states of his mother (from birth).

Sandman, C., Wadhwa, P., Hetrick, W., Porto, M., & Peeke, H., (1997). Human fetal heart rate dishabituation between thirty and thirty-two weeks. Child Development, 68(6), 1013-1040.

“Research shows that the fetus can distinguish between familiar and novel stimuli by the 32nd or 33rd week.”


Shahidullah, S., & Hepper, P.G. (1994). Frequency discrimination by the fetus. Early Human Development, 36(1): 13-26.

“The ability to discriminate between acoustic signals of different frequencies is fundamental to the interpretation of auditory information and the development of language perception and production. The fact that the human fetus responds to sounds of different frequencies raises the question of whether the fetus is able to discriminate between them? To investigate whether the fetus has the ability to discriminate between different pure tone acoustic stimuli and different speech sounds the following study used an habituation paradigm and examined whether the fetus could discriminate between two pure tone acoustic stimuli, 250 Hz and 500 Hz, or two speech sounds. The results indicated that the fetus is capable of discriminating between the different sounds, i.e. 250 Hz and 500 Hz and [ba] and [bi] at 35 weeks of gestational age but less able at 27 weeks of gestational age. The implications of this for the development of the auditory system are discussed.”

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