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Why does this baby cry when her mother sings?

By Siu-Lan Tan


This mesmerizing video has received over 21 million views, and is spreading rapidly through social media.

The baby is 10 month-old Mary Lynne Leroux, who weeps as her mother Amanda sings My Heart Can’t Tell You No, a song most recently popularized by Sara Evans.

Is this baby moved to tears by her mother’s soulful singing?

I have some hunches about this viral video — though nothing that will diminish the marvel of this scene. In the end, we may conclude that the video is even more magical than it first appears…

What we may be witnessing is a remarkable demonstration of emotional contagion, the tendency for humans to absorb and reflect the intense emotions of those around them. Emotional contagion is the foundation of human responses that are essential to social functioning (such as empathy), and is facilitated by the mirror neuron system in the brain.

It is shown in young infants’ tendency to cry when in the vicinity of another crying baby (known as contagious crying), and just as easily to mimic the joy or glee expressed by another person.  Emotional contagion may also be seen in the blank stares of infants of depressed mothers or fathers, reflecting their caregivers’ flat affect (emotionally unexpressive faces)

Parents also imitate their infants’ expressions. Infants begin to show a ‘social smile’ by about six to eight weeks of age, and this in turn also triggers more smiling in parents. This moment-to-moment mimicry and matching of emotional expressions in time is emotional synchrony — like ‘getting in step’ with each other, to dance together in a smooth interaction.

What does this have to do with the video?

At the beginning of the video, the mother begins with three spoken sentences. The melody of her voice goes upward at the very end of every sentence: “Mummy’s going to sing you a song…? You want mummy to sing a song, honey? Let me know how you feel about this song, okay?”  

Although the infant is not yet verbal, her mother pauses after each question as she would with a speech partner. The mother is essentially inviting the infant into a performance, and the infant responds with smiles and rapt attention.

From video by Amanda and Alain Leroux (licensing@storyful.com)
From video by Amanda and Alain Leroux (licensing@storyful.com)

This orientation to each other is important in establishing the optimal conditions for emotional contagion and synchrony. The singing begins. We cannot see the mother in the video. But when she’s singing, I imagine the emotional expression on her face to be intense as she sings soulfully about loss and longing. The infant immediately mimics this concentrated facial expression (emotional contagion).

From video by Amanda and Alain Leroux (licensing@storyful.com)
From video by Amanda and Alain Leroux (licensing@storyful.com)

The infant shows a yearning and pain in her face way beyond her years, because for the moment she is ‘borrowing’ her mother’s emotion from the song. At the end of each phrase, the mother’s facial muscles probably relax as she takes a new breath—in tandem, we see that the infant also smiles and relaxes at the end of every phrase (emotional synchrony). The depth of this infant’s responses is notable; infants differ from each other as much as adults do, and not every infant shows emotional responses to the same degree.

So does the song itself have no effect?

On the contrary, I believe the singing plays a very important role in this scenario. In daily interactions, emotional expressions are fleeting. Smiles or frowns might flash across the face, constantly changing with speech and environmental cues. But when singing a slow-paced song, facial expressions are shown as if in slow motion—or even as if suspended in time—probably intensifying the effects of emotional contagion.

The structure of the song is also important. In contrast to the mother’s invitation to the song, consisting of three sentences that each rose up in pitch at the end—this song is made up of phrases that generally have a bell-shaped melody. In other words, the melody tends to rise up towards a few high tones, and then has a pronounced downward sweep.

This bell-shaped melody approximates a ‘wailing’ contour that we see in some song structures for (both improvised and composed) mourning songs around the world.  It is possible that the ‘wailing’ bell-shaped contour of the phrases of this song may also communicate emotion to the infant, perhaps reflecting ‘emotional contagion’ through vocal cues.

From video by Amanda and Alain Leroux (licensing@storyful.com)
From video by Amanda and Alain Leroux (licensing@storyful.com)

The highest pitches seem to evoke the strongest responses (and tears) in the infant, not only because the greatest musical intensity comes at the peak of a melody—but also perhaps as the highest tones correspond with the most concentrated facial expressions of the singer.

In the closing moments of the video, the mother soothes the infant with her speech. In contrast to the arousing rising inflections before the song, the melody of the speech now descends (like a downward staircase): “It’s just a song. It’s just a song.” Amanda Leroux demonstrates that emotional speech is a version of song.

Does this analysis make the video any less magical? 

In my view, it may be even more remarkable and more compelling to think that what we are witnessing may not just be the power of the human voice and singing—but a window into how deeply and powerfully we are moved by the emotions of those around us, even in our earliest interactions. 

Emotional contagion induced by film characters on screen (especially in close-ups of the face)—and sensitivity to rising and falling melodies in film scores, as well as speech contours – are also mechanisms by which films take us on an emotional journey.  If filmed while watching a movie, you might catch yourself mimicking facial expressions of the characters, even though nobody is responding to your smiles and grimaces in the dark.

Mary Lynne Leroux at 10 months is ‘in tune’ with her mother in more ways than one—through her, we are reminded of how we are inherently social and emotional beings, as well as musical ones.

So why does this baby cry when her mother sings? 

For all the same reasons that we are moved when we watch the mother’s emotions so powerfully reflected in the face of this infant.

Acknowledgments

The YouTube video is by Amanda and Alain Leroux and can be found here . To use this video in a commercial player or broadcast, contact licensing@storyful.com.

Siu-Lan Tan,  is Associate Professor of Psychology at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, USA. She is primary editor of The Psychology of Music in Multimedia (Oxford University Press 2013), the first book consolidating the research on the role of music in film, television, video games, and computers. A version of this article also appears on Siu-Lan Tan’s blog entitled What Shapes Film: Elements of the Cinematic Experience on Psychology Today.

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Image credit: From video by Amanda and Alain Leroux (licensing@storyful.com)

Recent Comments

  1. pgangadharanpulingat

    Very very interesting video. The little one’s emotions, beauty, innocence , crying, and motherly affectionate song give us a moment to forget everything except to our feeling to hear and see the video .

  2. Jackie Harris

    I think you have this all wrong. The baby is upset and thinks the mother is wailing, crying and hurting.

  3. Marianela Pineda

    I use to take care of a baby that will cry really emotionally by a few songs , even if he wasn’t looking at my exprecion , it make cry , and it was hard to make him stop crying.

  4. Siu-Lan Tan Ph.D

    Jackie, thanks for your view. I too cannot draw any definite conclusions of course, and only offer possible explanations from developmental psychology and social psychology.

    As suggested in my post, I do think the infant is reflecting the emotional tone of the mother in facial expression and the song’s arching phrases that somewhat evoke the quality of a mourning wail.

    We should also not overlook the regular and frequent bright smiles the baby also shows between phrases, suggesting that the sad quality is fleeting with the song (“emotion”) – not more lasting and internally changed in the infant (which is “mood”).

    This is much like the range of (temporary) emotions we ‘borrow’ from a movie or an opera that has sad and frightening and joyful and triumphant parts. We seem drawn to rich symbolic experiences that take us through all the colors of emotions that make us human, while knowing we’re actually safe and secure.

    I have no doubt, however, that different people will come to different conclusions as interpretations of emotional expression are so personal.

  5. Siu-Lan Tan Ph.D

    Pgangadharanpulingat, wonderful to hear how the video transported you for a moment in your day. It is indeed very moving to sense the powerful bond between mother and infant, and between humans and song.

  6. Siu-Lan Tan Ph.D

    Marianela Pineda, yes as indicated in the post, emotional contagion can happen not only through seeing another person’s facial expression – but also through the quality of the voice – and the structure of the music, for instance the arc of a melody that is like a wailing sound. Very young infants also have a crying reflex (contagious crying) elicited by the sound of crying, and it may be possible for certain songs to trigger this kind of response in a sensitive baby who is very young. There is not yet much research on emotional contagion through song in infants and we still have a lot to learn.

  7. Yvette

    I’ve been teaching music (Kindermusik) to children (newborn to 7 years) since 1995. Nearly every year I have a student or two who cry for a lullaby that we would be listening to in class. The parents say they also cry for the recorded version of the song.

    This year for the first time I have a little one who cries when we sing a cheery “Hello” song! It’s in a major key and the words are La la la la la la la la Sing hello to Anna. It’s NOT a sad song! This child LOVES her Kindermusik classes — except for this one song! Her mother has also told me that she cries for “Goodnight Ladies.”

    I have heard that it’s possible that it is a sensory issue. I am very curious to know more!

  8. Siu-Lan Tan Ph.D

    Yvette, very interesting. As developmental psychologists, we might make conjectures about the majority of infants, but may never be able to explain all of them. We also have to remember that – as my blog post mentions – infants differ from each other, as much as adults do. They are not all the same in their tastes and responses to things.

    So it may be that a song that most children enjoy might be upsetting to a particular infant or child. When my little sister was an infant, any sight of Charlie Chaplin doing his funny quick walk would make her very upset and wail immediately. This lasted for a couple of years before it faded. We were never able to figure out what it was, and probably will never know.

    It could be that intense stimuli of certain kinds – high-pitched singing, wail-like melodies like the ones I describe in the post, very animated singing or vivacious actions to song – or anything of sudden intensity, may be upsetting to some children. Perhaps it is a sort of sensory overload, and inability to regulate one’s arousal level.

    As you mention you only see it in “a student or two” per year, it seems quite rare. In the end, we should remember that infants and children are individuals – and not be too surprised that they don’t all respond the same way to stimuli- just as adults very rarely all respond to the same thing in the same way.

  9. isa

    I have to post this comment to prove your theory wrong. I came across this video while I was breastfeeding my baby and she started whimpering and making sad faces and slightly crying. I would continue to play it 3 to 4 times video nowhere in sight of her face and each time the same reaction. I am so intrigued and curious what it is about this song.

  10. Siu-Lan Tan Ph.D

    Hi Isa,

    Please see the part of my post entitled “So does the song itself have no effect?”

    There, I’ve explained that features of this particular song itself – such as the structure of the melody, as well as the quality of tone of the voice when singing this song – also play an important part in eliciting this strong emotional response.

    So the infant does not have to be looking at the parent’s face – there are many other ways emotion can be “caught” from someone else.

    In the Emotional Baby’s case, I think it is being triggered by all of these: facial expressions, voice quality, and structure of melody. But the sound of the song alone can be enough to trigger this emotional response.

    My post is not just about communication emotion through face – but through music. And that part of the post describes what it might be about the melody of this particular song.

    Hope that is helpful. Thank you for your interest!

  11. Alana O'Reilly

    Just watched another video that is similar (I’m sure there are many), but I thought it was really interesting that this 4-year-old could acknowledge that it is a sad song but also that he still wanted to continue listening to it.
    Video titled: Jackson crying at A Great Big World’s “Say Something” feat. Christina Aguilera
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Js4YZ1z0to

  12. Siu-Lan Tan Ph.D

    Hello there Alana,

    Several people have sent me this video, and I agree that it is very interesting and moving! It seems that young children – like adults – seem to enjoy symbolic activities that bring about strong emotions. Just like many of us like watching scary films in the safety of our own homes, reading a novel about a serial killer, or listening to an Adele song about heartbreak. It seems we are drawn to evoking and expressing a range of emotions “borrowed” from a symbolic experience – a film, a novel, a song.

    As I wrote in my post, this can happen not just through contact with another human being – but from the structure of the music/song itself. But I’m really surprised at the depth of sensitivity of this 4 year-old; he is like an old soul. It goes to show that even those who study child development can’t begin to explain and understand everything about infants and young children!

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