Honing, H., Ladinig, O., Winkler, I., & Haden, G. (2009). Do newborn infants sense the beat? Proceedings of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music, 200-201


Music is present in some form in all human cultures. Sensitivity to various elements of music appears quite early on in infancy with understanding and appreciation of music emerging later through interaction between developing perceptual capabilities and cultural influence. Whereas there is already some information regarding spectral processing abilities of newborn infants, little is known about how they process rhythm. The ability to sense beat (a regular pulse in an auditory signal; termed ‘tactus’ in music theory); helps individuals to synchronize their movements with each other, such as necessary for dancing or producing music together. While beat induction would be very difficult to assess in newborns using behavioral techniques, it is possible to measure electrical brain responses to sounds (auditory event related brain potentials, ERP), even in sleeping babies.
The results demonstrate that violating the beat of a rhythmic sound sequence is detected by the brain of newborn infants. We show that newborn infants develop expectation for the onset of rhythmic cycles (the downbeat), even when it is not marked by stress or other distinguishing spectral features. Omitting the downbeat elicits brain activity associated with violating sensory expectations. So it appears that the capability of detecting beat in rhythmic sound sequences is already functional at birth (Honing et al., 2009; Winkler et al., 2009).

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