The more advances that are made in scientific research, the more we learn about the impressive extent of babies’ knowledge and abilities. A recent study now suggests that infants are much more musically inclined than previously believed: they have a natural affinity for rhythm.
Henkjan Honing, professor of music cognition at the University of Amsterdam, and his colleagues observed back in 2009 that infants just a few days old could feel the beat – the regular, continuous pulse that marks the rhythm – of a song.
This cognitive skill is essential as it greatly facilitates the appreciation and understanding of music. So it’s even more remarkable that newborns possess it.
While this discovery marked a turning point in the understanding of infant hearing, questions remained. That’s why Dutch and Hungarian researchers decided to conduct an experiment with 27 newborns, in which they manipulated the timing of several drum beats.
The first recording the babies listened to was rhythmically isochronous – that is, the time spacing between sounds was always the same. The second was articulated around the same drum rhythm, but with random or jittered timing. It was, therefore, more difficult to clearly perceive the rhythm of this sound sequence.
Headphones fitted with sensors were placed on the heads of the infants, who were asleep throughout the experiment, so that the academics could record and analyse the electrical signals linked to certain brain responses.
This protocol highlighted the fact that the babies were able to perceive rhythm when the time interval between beats was regular. However, they were unable to distinguish it when the sounds followed each other more randomly.
This shows that “being able to hear the beat is innate and not simply the result of learned sound sequences”, as professor István Winkler, co-author of the study published in the journal Cognition, stated. “Our findings suggest that it is a specific skill of newborns.
“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,” he added.
This research confirms the idea put forward by previous scientific research that babies prefer certain sound stimuli to others. A 2018 study by the Institut Marquès even claims that their musical preferences are forged even before they are born, when they are still in their mother’s womb.
According to the researchers at this Barcelona-based centre specialising in medically assisted reproduction, foetuses have a preference for classical or traditional music, such as Mozart’s “A Little Night Music”.