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REPORT | Baby’s Got The Beat: Science Shows Newborns Can Process Musical Beats

By Anya Wassenberg on November 29, 2023

Image by SarahRichterArt (CC0C/Pixabay)
Image by SarahRichterArt (CC0C/Pixabay)

We’re born with an understanding of rhythm and beats. Researchers in the Netherlands and Hungary have published a paper that confirms and adds to our understanding of the musicality of newborns. When it comes to rhythm, our ability to discern beats seems to be inborn.

Available online, the paper with the long title Beat processing in newborn infants cannot be explained by statistical learning based on transition probabilities will be published in the February 2024 edition of Cognition, a peer reviewed journal.

The Study

The experiment used EEG tests to gauge the reactions of the babies to regular as well as random jittered beats;

  • 27 babies listened to two versions of a rhythm pattern on the drums via headphones;
  • One version used a regular beat, while the other used a randomized (or jittered) timing.

Could the sleeping babies tell the difference? The answer appears to be yes.

Talking Points

An earlier study, Winkler et al. (Newborn infants detect the beat in music, 2009), laid the base work for studying the perceptual capabilities of newborns when it comes to rhythm. Their study showed that babies react to the downbeat, and anticipate it. Disrupting the downbeat produced specific brain activity that is linked to reacting to the unexpected.

The data of the new study revealed other key findings:

  • Newborns process musical beats as they sleep;
  • Transition probabilities (explained below) could not account for the way newborns processed beats;
  • The results confirm the 2009 study.

Transitional probability is a commonly used method of describing speech and linguistics development when it comes to infants. It refers to the concept that, when certain syllables are spoken together (as in a word) repeatedly, babies can separate out those syllables from the rest of what they hear — it’s how they eventually recognize words, in other words.

In the context of the study, it’s the ability of babies to figure out that certain beats come together in patterns because they’ve heard them repeatedly. The experiment varied the time signatures, and randomized the timing, of one of the beat patterns in order to take this phenomenon into account.

The data gathered showed that there was a clear difference between the way the infants reacted, recognizing the regular beats, but not reacting to the same sequence when it was jittered or disrupted.

István Winkler, professor at the HUN-REN Research Centre for Natural Sciences in Hungary, and co-author of the study, is quoted in Laboratory Equipment.

“The crucial difference confirms that being able to hear the beat is innate and not simply the result of learned sound sequences,” he said. “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.”

Why It’s Important

The way we process sound as infants is crucial to the development of language as well as musical ability.

Study into this area lets us see how both speech and music processing intersects at a very crucial time, when the baby’s brain begins to mature.

Beat processing is crucial to the ability to dance and make music. As the paper notes, it’s a skill that’s evolved gradually in the primate family, and appears fully in humans, and partially in chimpanzees and other apes.

That study’s authors conclude by noting that innate beat processing and the kind of statistical learning described by transitional probability most likely work together.

Conclusion: keep singing those lullabies to your babies — it’s important.

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