Babies Respond to Music, Rhythm More Than Speech

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Researchers in Britain and Finland have found that infants are much more physically responsive to the rhythm and tempo of music than speech and find it more engaging.

In the experiment, the scientists tested the responses of 120 babies ages 5 months to 2 years as the babies were perched on one of their parents’ laps. The parents wore headphones to block out the sound of the music and were asked to stay still so as not to influence the results.

The psychologists played recordings of various genres of music, including classical and rhythmic beats, or speech sounds, and watched as the babies moved their heads, arms, legs, and bodies in time. Professional ballet dancers were also on hand to evaluate the movements and determine how well-coordinated they were with the music.

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All of the babies responded more to the music than to the speech recordings regardless of age, suggesting that humans may be born with a predisposition to move rhythmically in response to music. In addition, the babies also smiled more in response to the musical recordings.

"Our research suggests that it is the beat rather than other features of the music, such as the melody, that produces the response in infants," said psychologist Marcel Zentner of the University of York in England, one of the study's authors. "It remains to be understood why humans have developed this particular predisposition," he continued. "One possibility is that it was a target of natural selection for music or that it has evolved for some other function that just happens to be relevant for music processing."

The findings complement an earlier study conducted at the Institute for Psychology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Institute for Logic, Language and Computation at the University of Amsterdam. Researchers there found that two and three day old babies can detect beat in music. “Beat induction”, as it is called”, was not thought to be innate, but learned in the first few months of life.

The study appears in the March 15 issue of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was co-authored by Dr. Tuomas Eerola from the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research at the University of Jyvaskyla.

Journal References:
Marcel Zentner, Tuomas Eerola. Rhythmic engagement with music in infancy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1000121107
Winkler et al. Newborn infants detect the beat in music. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jan 26, 2009; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0809035106

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