Even Newborn Infants Can Feel the Beat

By Eliza Strickland | January 27, 2009 8:55 am

baby musicBabies just a few days old can already identify a rhythmic pattern, and their brains show surprise when the music skips a beat, according to a new study. Researchers played recordings that used high-hat cymbals, snare drums, and bass drums to make a funky little beat while monitoring the infants‘ brain activity with non-invasive electroencephalogram brain scanners, and found that newborns respond to a skipped beat in the same way that adults do.

The ability to follow a beat is called beat induction. Neither chimpanzees nor bonobos — our closest primate relatives — are capable of beat induction, which is considered both a uniquely human trait and a cognitive building block of music. Researchers have debated whether this is inborn or learned during the few first months of life, calibrated by the rocking arms and lullabies of parents [Wired News]. While the researchers who conducted the new study say their findings are evidence that beat induction in innate, others argue that the newborns could have already learned to identify rhythmic patterns by listening to their mothers’ heartbeats while in the womb.

In the study, reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 14 sleeping newborns were exposed to repeated recordings of a rock drum accompaniment pattern and to four variations of that pattern. Babies were usually exposed to patterns with a downbeat. On rare occasions, the downbeat was missing. Of the 306 consecutive drum sequences presented to newborns, one in 10 lacked a downbeat. Each newborn wore scalp electrodes during the study. Drum sequences missing a downbeat elicited a signature, split-second brain response that has been linked in adults to the violation of one’s expectations [Science News].

Lead researcher István Winkler says the findings suggest that a rhythmic sensibility is very important for infants’ brain development, and says it may help them respond to the rhythmic and repetitive baby talk that lays the foundation of all future language learning. Therefore, evolution may have favored brains wired to rock for learning purposes, said Winkler, and “music went along for the ride” [LiveScience].

Related Content:
DISCOVER: The Genetic Mystery of Music
DISCOVER: Music of the Hemispheres explores what music means to the human brain

Image: flickr / One*mandarino


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Mind & Brain
  • Gwenny

    Why is it surprising that a creature that has already been alive for NINE MONTHS before it was born and exposed to both the rhythms of its mother’s body and any music she listens to has already learned to recognize patterns? I am in awe of the silliness of this study. I may have to look up some of those scientists and email them. SHEESH!

  • Gin

    Probably because of the whole idea that “unborn” babies are not considered “alive” yet… that whole aborting thing you know? I agree with you though.

  • Barbara

    Now they will be motivated to find a way to hook up electrodes to the unborn to see if they get the same reaction. Question is, at what point in gestation do they try it?

  • foobar

    > Why is it surprising that a creature that has already been alive for NINE MONTHS before it was born and exposed to both the rhythms of its mother’s body and any music she listens to has already learned to recognize patterns? I am in awe of the silliness of this study. I may have to look up some of those scientists and email them

    Chimps also stay in their mother’s womb for eight months…

  • R.W. Thomas

    Those scientists.

    Attempting to learn things about the nature of life as opposed to simply assuming it/making it up as they go.

    You -should- email them.

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