Musical babies - just days after they're born

Scientists have discovered that newborn babies are able to pick up a beat days after birth.

The Hungarian scientists say they have found that babies who are a mere 2 or 3 days old show the neural signs of detecting a rhythmic beat - this is thought to be critical for learning music.

A new study from a team at Budapest's Academy of Sciences say the brains of newborn babies recognize when a rhythmic drum sequence lacks its initial beat, or downbeat - the downbeat corresponds to the downstroke of a conductor's baton at the beginning of a musical measure.

The study leader, psychologist Dr. István Winkler says newborns automatically perceive the downbeat of a sequence of sounds without having to snap their fingers or tap their toes but to what extent this ability depends on innate biology rather than hearing rhythmic sounds, such as a mother's heartbeat, in the womb, remains unclear.

Musicologist and study co-author Associate Professor Henkjan Honing from the University of Amsterdam says it has always been assumed that the ability to sense a regular pulse in an auditory sequence was learned sometime late in infancy and this is the first evidence of beat induction in newborns.

Dr Winkler suggests that a newborns' knack for perceiving rhythmic beats may lie at the core of not only musical ability, but also the unique communication, including baby talk, between a caretaker and a baby that sets the stage for language learning.

For the study, 14 sleeping newborns, between 37 and 40 weeks old, were exposed to repeated recordings of a rock drum accompaniment pattern and to four variations of that pattern similar to a rhythm and blues style - the babies were usually exposed to patterns with a downbeat but of the 306 consecutive drum sequences presented to the newborns, in 1 in 10 a downbeat was missing.

The babies wore non-invasive scalp electrodes that measured their brain activity while the music played and it was found that drum sequences missing a downbeat elicited a signature, split-second brain response that has been linked in adults to the violation of one's expectations.

Earlier research by Winkler has indicated that infants' brains respond to sounds as the babies contentedly snooze but he says what sleeping babies actually experience as sound reaches their brains is unknown.

However other experts believe while a new baby's ability to extract a regular beat is possibly very important for music learning, whether it is helpful in learning language, is unclear.

They say questions remain about whether newborns can detect musical beats and say the study results do not show that babies were detecting the beat, but simply responding to a change in a larger sound pattern.

However the experiment elicited a neurological response which the researchers say does indicate that newborns remember rhythm sequences.

Honing says the memory for rhythmic sequences is a more complex process than beat detection, as beat detection requires only that the brain discern the length of a sound sequence and its onset.

The scientists believe that the ability to perceive music develops in the womb along with the brain and Winkler notes that prior studies have shown that music "presented repeatedly during the last month of pregnancy is 'recognised' by the brain of the newborn after birth, who are also sensitive to the voice of their own mother compared to the voice of other females, and he believes there is real learning taking place in the womb.

Winkler says babies are ready to 'understand' the world in a much more complex way than previously thought.

The research is published online January 26 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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