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Babies are born with the ability to recognize 'the beat' in music

Scientists from the University of Amsterdam have made a significant discovery regarding newborn babies, music, and “beat” perception. The research confirms that newborns have rhythm and can recognize the beat in music

The findings suggest that the ability to perceive a music beat is an innate cognitive mechanism – distinct from other learning processes – that is active from the very beginning of life.

How babies perceive music

“There is still a lot we don’t know about how newborn babies perceive, remember and process music,” study’s lead author Professor Henkjan Honing. 

“But, in 2009, we found clear indications that babies of just a few days old have the ability to hear a regular pulse in music — the beat — a characteristic that is considered essential for making and appreciating music.”

To further explore this phenomenon, the researchers conducted an experiment with 27 newborn babies. The goal was to distinguish between the babies’ ability to learn the order of sounds in a drum rhythm (statistical learning) and their capacity to recognize a beat (beat-induction). 

This distinction is crucial in understanding how beat perception operates as a separate cognitive mechanism from birth.

How the research was conducted

The method involved presenting two versions of a drum rhythm to the babies via headphones. The first version had an isochronous timing, maintaining equal intervals between sounds, enabling the perception of a pulse or beat. 

The second version had the same drum pattern but with random timing (jittered), making beat perception impossible, though the sequence of sounds could still be learned.

Due to the challenges in observing behavioral responses in newborns, the study relied on brain wave measurements (EEG) taken while the babies slept. This approach allowed the researchers to observe the brain responses to the different rhythm versions.

Key insights into babies and music

The experts found that when the rhythm had regular intervals, the babies’ brain responses indicated they heard the beat. However, when the timing was irregular, the beat was not perceived.

“This crucial difference confirms that being able to hear the beat is innate and not simply the result of learned sound sequences,” said study author István Winkler, a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology at the HUN-REN Research Centre for Natural Sciences (TTK). 

“Our findings suggest that it is a specific skill of newborns and make clear how important baby and nursery rhymes are for the auditory development of young children. More insight into early perception is of great importance for learning more about infant cognition and the role that musical skills may play in early development.”

Fundamental human trait 

The research not only adds a new dimension to our understanding of cognitive development in newborns but also highlights the intrinsic connection between humans and music from birth.

“Most people can easily pick up the beat in music and judge whether the music is getting faster or slower – it seems like an inconsequential skill,” said Professor Honing.

“However, since perceiving regularity in music is what allows us to dance and make music together, it is not a trivial phenomenon. In fact, beat perception can be considered a fundamental human trait that must have played a crucial role in the evolution of our capacity for music.”

The human connection to music

Music is an extraordinary force, deeply rooted in human nature. Across all cultures and ages, it serves as a universal language, transcending barriers and fostering connections.

Emotional impact of music

Music possesses a unique ability to evoke profound emotions in adults and babies alike. Melodies and rhythms can trigger joy, sadness, nostalgia, or excitement, often instantly and intensely. This emotional resonance is due to music’s direct link to the brain’s limbic system, which governs our emotions and memories.

Groups often use music to strengthen social bonds. Whether it’s through a shared experience at a concert, a communal dance, or singing together, music fosters a sense of belonging and unity. This communal aspect of music is rooted in our evolutionary history, where early humans used music for social cohesion and communication.

Music and memory

Music’s power extends to unlocking memories. A familiar song can transport us back in time, reviving forgotten moments and emotions. This phenomenon, known as the “Proustian effect,” highlights music’s capacity to activate specific memory traces.

In therapy, music aids in memory recall and emotional processing, especially in patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Music therapy has shown remarkable results in reawakening memories and improving the mood and cognitive function of such patients.

Music in cultural identity

Music is a vital expression of cultural identity. It carries the stories, beliefs, and traditions of a community, passing them down through generations. Traditional music forms help preserve cultural heritage and foster a sense of identity and continuity.

Furthermore, music acts as a bridge between different cultures. Exposure to diverse musical styles fosters understanding and appreciation of other cultures, promoting empathy and tolerance.

In summary, music’s role in human connection is profound and multifaceted. It evokes emotions, strengthens social bonds, unlocks memories, and expresses cultural identity. Its universal appeal lies in its ability to speak directly to the human spirit, making it a powerful tool for connection and understanding in an increasingly diverse world.

The study is published in the journal Cognition.

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