When a baby is born, it knows its mother's voice. Usually, he or she also recognizes the voices of other close family members, their favorite music, and household sounds. More interesting than that, is the idea that babies might have a sense of rhythm while still in the womb.
Researchers at the University of Amsterdam recently conducted a study involving playing rock music for infants, and tracking their neurological responses to changes in beat. While it is common knowledge that children and adults develop a natural sense for how music progresses, the scientists wondered if infants were also able to subconsciously relate to music. This would indicate that the sense of rhythm was not so much learned, but inborn!
For the study, very young infants' brain signals were monitored though electrodes. Small ear pieces played rock rhythms to the babies. Occasionally, the music's rhythm would be disrupted. According to the electrical monitoring, the babies expected to hear a beat, and reacted when they did not. Their reactions were similar to those of adults in the same situation.
"We can infer from this methodology that these babies have a high expectation of a beat on a moment which is particularly silent," explained researcher Henkjan Honing, professor of music cognition. "It's evidence that for the fact that babies have a central rhythm when they are born."
Previously, it was assumed that babies learned rhythm early in life from being rocked and sung to. The recent research suggests that the sense of rhythm is instinctive, and thereby serves a practical function. Some experts feel that the evidence points not so much to an understanding of music, but of language. Since everything sounds a bit muffled in the womb, speech may come through as more of a rhythm than anything else.
"You don't have to conclude that infants are specifically wired for music, but you can say that infants are naturally wired to find language in the world. We pick up on it by music, and we enjoy having it because of music, but I don't think we're wired for music," said Ann Senghas, assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University.
The science of fetal development indicates that babies begin to hear sounds at about 23 weeks, and responds to certain noises with gestures and movements. For example, mothers have experienced jumps and jerks after loud or sharp noises during pregnancy. Knowing that fetuses also develop an understanding of language and rhythm while still in the womb could help scientists determine the problems of children having trouble with language later in life. It would be highly beneficial for children to be born with a sense of language. And how exciting to think that humans, even before birth, are performing highly complex neurological functions like language learning!