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Baby Got Beat: Music May Be Inborn
Old 27th January 2009
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Baby Got Beat: Music May Be Inborn

Baby Got Beat: Music May Be Inborn

Newborn babies enter the world kicking, screaming and already able to feel the beat.

They exhibit the same pattern of brain activity as adults listening to an unexpectedly disrupted rhythm, which could be a clue to the nature of the human relationship to music.

"We're interested in finding out what the origins of music could be," said Henkjan Honing, head of the University of Amsterdam's Music Cognition Group. "Is music just a side effect of language?"

The ability to follow a beat is called beat induction. Neither chimpanzees nor bonobos β€” our closest primate relatives β€” 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. This question in turn touches on the nature of music: whether it's an innate human ability, or β€” as neuroscientists like Steven Pinker have suggested β€” an offshoot of language, an "auditory cheesecake."

If beat induction is present at birth, perhaps music is its own reward.

"We hear music, we clap along. Music becomes faster or slower, and we can dance to it," said Honing, lead author of the study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We have evidence for the first time that it's active at birth, not learned."

Honing's team attached an electroencephalogram β€” a machine that measures general levels of brain activity β€” to 14 two- and three-day-old babies, then played a rock beat composed of a high hat, snare and bass drums.

Immediately after each beat, the babies' brain activity increased. After several repetitions, the researchers dropped the bass from every fourth beat. (To hear what the babies heard, click here.) The babies' brains showed a momentary disturbance, known as a mismatch negativity, that is experienced by adults when expected stimuli fail to occur.

"You can see in the brains of these babies that they expect something to happen, and it doesn't," said Honing.

Though beat induction probably helps people time interactions during conversation, he said, the ability's origins are likely disconnected from language.

"The regularity is hardly ever found there," he said. "The pulse is defined in most music, but you hardly ever find it in language."

McMaster University auditory development specialist Laurel Trainor agreed with Honing that beat induction underlies musical rather than linguistic faculties, but cautioned that it could still be learned β€” albeit much earlier than expected.
"Infants are hearing from the sixth prenatal month," she said. "They are certainly getting a lot of experience with rhythmic sounds before birth, such as the mother's heartbeat," and even loud music.

But whether in our hearts or learned from a mother's heart, beat induction's musical essence raises questions about the purpose of music.

Perhaps, write Honing and colleagues, musical capacity provides some as-yet-unidentified evolutionary advantage, with the ability to process it a basic part of humanity's biological heritage.

"I'd be very intrigued to go one step up and see if babies are also sensitive to meter, as opposed to only beat induction," he said. "I'd like to see if they can appreciate the difference between a 2/4 and 4/4 beat, or a march and a waltz."

Citation: "Newborn infants detect the beat in music." By Istvan Winkler, Gabor P. Haden, Olivia Ladinig, Istvan Sziller, and Henkjan Honing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 106, No. 4, Jan. 26, 2009.

Baby Got Beat: Music May Be Inborn | Wired Science from Wired.com
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