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Newborns have an innate sense of rhythm, study finds

New research conducted by scientists from the University of Amsterdam and the HUN-REN Research Center for Natural Sciences in Hungary affirms that newborn babies have the ability to perceive the beat in music. The study, published in the journal Cognition on November 27, reveals that this capability goes beyond statistical learning, indicating that beat perception is a distinct cognitive mechanism already active at birth.

Professor Henkjan Honing, the author and a specialist in Music Cognition at the University of Amsterdam, highlights the gaps in understanding how newborns perceive, remember, and process music. He mentions that their earlier findings in 2009 suggested that even newborns, just a few days old, possess the ability to discern a regular pulse in music, commonly known as the beat—an essential characteristic for music creation and appreciation.

Given the need for replication and the persistence of unanswered questions, the University of Amsterdam and the HUN-REN Research Center for Natural Sciences collaborated once more, employing a new paradigm in an experiment involving 27 newborns. The researchers manipulated the timing of drum rhythms to investigate whether infants differentiate between learning the sequence of sounds in a drum rhythm (statistical learning) and recognizing a beat (beat-induction).

Manipulated timing

To investigate newborns' ability to perceive the beat in music, researchers presented two versions of a drum rhythm to babies through headphones. In one version, the timing was consistent (isochronous), creating a discernible pulse or beat. In the other version, the same drum pattern was presented with random timing (jittered), eliminating beat perception while allowing for the learning of the sound sequence. This approach enabled the researchers to distinguish between beat perception and statistical learning.

Given that behavioral responses in newborns cannot be directly observed, the study utilized brain wave measurements (EEG) during the babies' sleep. This method allowed researchers to examine the infants' . The findings indicated that when the time intervals between beats were consistent, the babies perceived the beat. Conversely, when the same pattern was played with irregular time intervals, the babies did not detect a beat.

Not a trivial skill

“This crucial distinction underscores that the ability to hear the beat is intrinsic and not merely a result of learned sound sequences,” emphasized co-author István Winkler, a professor at the Institute of Cognitive and Psychology at TTK.

“Our findings indicate that recognizing a beat is a specific skill innate to newborns, emphasizing the significance of baby songs and nursery rhymes in fostering the auditory development of young children. Further insights into early perception are vital for understanding infant cognition and unraveling the potential role of musical skills in early development.”

Professor Henkjan Honing adds, “While many people effortlessly pick up the beat in music and gauge its tempo changes—an apparently inconsequential skill—perceiving regularity in music is crucial for activities like dancing and creating music collectively. Far from trivial, beat perception can be viewed as a fundamental human trait that likely played a pivotal role in the of our musical capacities.”

Source: University of Amsterdam

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