Newborns’ Innate Beat Perception: Key to Early Musical Cognition

Summary: Researchers revealed that newborn babies inherently perceive musical beats, a skill separate from their statistical learning ability.

The study involved 27 newborns and used EEG brain wave measurements to differentiate between beat perception and statistical learning of sound sequences. Results showed that babies could detect a regular pulse in music when timing between beats was consistent.

This groundbreaking research emphasizes the innate nature of beat perception in newborns, underlining its significance in early auditory development and its potential role in the evolution of human musical capacity.

Key Facts:

  1. The study uniquely identified beat perception as an innate ability in newborns, distinct from statistical learning.
  2. Brain wave responses confirmed that newborns can perceive a consistent beat in music, but not when timing intervals are irregular.
  3. This research highlights the importance of music and rhythm in early childhood development and suggests an evolutionary role for beat perception in humans.

Source: University of Amsterdam

Newborn babies can perceive the beat in music, new research has confirmed. The study, carried out by a team of scientists from the University of Amsterdam and the HUN-REN Research Centre for Natural Sciences (TTK) in Hungary, shows that this ability to recognise a beat is not simply due to the statistical learning ability of newborns, but that beat perception is actually a separate cognitive mechanism that is already active at birth.

The study was published on 27 November in the scientific journal Cognition.

This shows a baby and a piano.
These responses showed that the babies heard the beat when the time interval between the beats was always the same. Credit: Neuroscience News

‘There is still a lot we don’t know about how newborn babies perceive, remember and process music,’ says author Henkjan Honing, professor of Music Cognition at the UvA. ‘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.’

27 babies

Because the previous research from Honing and his colleagues had so far remained unreplicated and they still had many questions, the UvA and TTK joined forces once again – this time using a new paradigm.

In an experiment with 27 newborn babies, researchers manipulated the timing of drum rhythms to see whether babies make a distinction between learning the order of sounds in a drum rhythm (statistical learning) and being able to recognise a beat (beat-induction).

Manipulated timing

The babies were presented with two versions of one drum rhythm through headphones. In the first version, the timing was isochronous: the distance between the sounds was always the same. This allows you to hear a pulse or beat in the rhythm. In the other version, the same drum pattern was presented, but with random timing (jittered).

As a result, beat perception was not possible, but the sequence of sounds could be learned. This allowed the researchers to distinguish between beat perception and statistical learning.

Because behavioural responses in newborn babies cannot be observed, the research was done with brain wave measurements (EEG) while the babies were sleeping. This way, the researchers were able to view the brain responses of the babies.

These responses showed that the babies heard the beat when the time interval between the beats was always the same. But when the researchers played the same pattern at irregular time intervals, the babies didn’t hear a beat.

Not a trivial skill

‘This crucial difference confirms that being able to hear the beat is innate and not simply the result of learned sound sequences,’ said co-author István Winkler, professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology at 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.’

Honing adds: ‘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. 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.’

About this cognition, music, and neuroscience research news

Author: Laura Erdtsieck
Source: University of Amsterdam
Contact: Laura Erdtsieck – University of Amsterdam
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Beat processing in newborn infants cannot be explained by statistical learning based on transition probabilities” by Henkjan Honing et al. Cognition


Beat processing in newborn infants cannot be explained by statistical learning based on transition probabilities

Newborn infants have been shown to extract temporal regularities from sound sequences, both in the form of learning regular sequential properties, and extracting periodicity in the input, commonly referred to as a regular pulse or the ‘beat’.

However, these two types of regularities are often indistinguishable in isochronous sequences, as both statistical learning and beat perception can be elicited by the regular alternation of accented and unaccented sounds.

Here, we manipulated the isochrony of sound sequences in order to disentangle statistical learning from beat perception in sleeping newborn infants in an EEG experiment, as previously done in adults and macaque monkeys.

We used a binary accented sequence that induces a beat when presented with isochronous timing, but not when presented with randomly jittered timing. We compared mismatch responses to infrequent deviants falling on either accented or unaccented (i.e., odd and even) positions.

Results showed a clear difference between metrical positions in the isochronous sequence, but not in the equivalent jittered sequence. This suggests that beat processing is present in newborns. Despite previous evidence for statistical learning in newborns the effects of this ability were not detected in the jittered condition.

These results show that statistical learning by itself does not fully explain beat processing in newborn infants.

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  1. I am an early childhood music teacher in Abilene, TX, utilizing the Suzuki SECE curriculum. In two classes of 10 children each, who are aged birth to four years, I find that infants respond quickly to nursery rhymes accompanied by small classroom instruments as well. We use a handheld drum, triangle, simple hand sized plastic containers with lids producing a pleasant drum tone, as well as instruments with specific tones like glockenspiel and alto xylophone. With some activities we chant. With others we sing. Parents are taught how to adapt activities to be appropriate to the age of the child.
    We notice increase ability with increase age and children as young as 15 months can produce an independent steadily repeated beat.

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