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How Babies Find Their Groove

15 August 2005 (All day)
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Discriminating tastes. One-year-olds can regain their ability to discern the nuances of foreign music.

Teenagers may think they're more hip than their parents are because they can "appreciate" a wider range of musical styles, but infants may have everyone beat. A new study suggests that, with a small amount of training, one-year-olds can distinguish nuances in foreign music that even adolescents can't hear. The findings may give clues to how babies learn to distinguish the smorgasbord of colors, objects, and sounds in their world.

As their brains develop, babies lose the ability to pick up on the nuances of unfamiliar sights and sounds. At 6 months, for example, infants can typically tell the unique sounds used by different languages apart. But this ability dwindles as they grow older: English-speaking children are no longer able to distinguish the subtle tonal changes in Chinese, for example. However, infants are still able to discriminate among things frequently present in their world, such as their language and human faces. While a psychologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Erin Hannon wondered if this trend also applied to music. Previous studies suggested that six-month olds can distinguish melodic disruptions in the music of other cultures. But does this ability also disappear at one-year of age?

To find out, Hannon, now at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and colleagues had one-year olds, who were raised in English-speaking environments, listen to Western and Balkan music. The music turned on when infants looked at a screen and turned off when they looked away. Western music tends to have a regular beat whereas Balkan music alternates between long and short rhythms. The team found that after listening to a sample of each type of music, infants looked at the screen longer when the rhythm was disrupted for Western music, but not for Balkan melodies. Because babies stare longer at things that look or sound novel, the findings suggest that, by one year old, a child's ability to recognize intricacies in the music of other cultures has disappeared, the researchers report online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"This finding really complements what has been found," says Olivier Pascalis, a neuroscientist at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. "It could suggest there is a link between language and music."

Related Links
Hannon's home page
Co-author Sandra Trehub's home page

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