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Infants and the musical beat

If you are living in a big family, or you just adore children, you might have noticed some of these phenomena:

• Infants pay attention to the music on TV.

• Everybody talk to infants like a Soprano Opera Singer, in a high pitch and with exaggerated expressions.

• Infants attentively react to these types of communication and look very interested

• If the infant senses aggression in the tone, they might start to cry. Some may even respond with a disapproving outcry.

• If held close to the sound of music or that of somebody singing, the infant starts to actually ‘dance’!


Parents might have noticed and experienced all of these reactions and assumed that their child was very talented and smart. This is correct in some ways and wrong in others: the ability to communicate and respond to the environment shows that the infant is probably healthy and possesses an appropriate level of comprehension and understanding. But the assumption that the infant, who reacts and dances to the music, has talent in music is a myth. Why? The answer is as follows.

In the mother’s womb, in addition to the chemicals and food from her body, a foetus receives stimuli from the outside environment. The physical stimuli that the infant receives are movement and sound. They feel the movement, and move themselves, and they ‘hear’ voices from inside and outside of the mother’s body— the heartbeat and the mother’s voice from inside (due to the vibrations of her speech within her body), and environmental sounds and other people’s voices from the outside world. Sound is an infant’s only non-chemical connection to the outside world. Vision and tactile senses appear after birth. Therefore, infants show significant reactions to sound: they move their head to find the source of sound; they react to their mother’s voice and every sudden sound. The auditory sense is normally more sensitive in infants than adults and they can hear a wider range of frequencies. Although this ability decays as they become older.

Infants react to music. Some types of music can make them cry and with some they start to move and enjoy themselves. What is the process? Has the infant actually learned to dance during 9-10 months or a year or is it because they receive social rewards and encouragement when dancing to music?

Indeed, to move to music is a human instinct. Although social rewards and encouragement do have influence on an infants’ reaction to the beat of music, it is not the primary reason for them to move and tap to the beat. A study* which investigated this phenomenon can be summarised as follows:

Infants between 5 to 24 months and from two different nationalities were chosen to take part in an experiment along with their parents. The infants were sat on their parent’s laps to avoid separation anxiety and also for them to move the detectable parts of their body (e.g. hands, upper body) so the researchers would be able to track the infant’s movements accurately. The parents were wearing headphones so that they were prevented from hearing the music and avoid any possible unconscious tapping and moving to the music. The infants were exposed to excerpts of classical music, children’s music, rhythmic patterns and also two types of speech: normal adult speech and infant-directed speech.

The results showed that infants detect the beat in music and move to the regular beat of the music. Although the complexity of rhythmic changes and also the speed can influence their reactions, they do it without any help or actual learning. In addition, it was suggested that the infants’ attention and reaction to music was higher than that to mere speech (even their own parents’ speech). Indeed, the infants dancing to the beat is related to a human’s innate ability of entrainment, in which we ‘sync’ our movements with others. To understand this ability, imagine being at a rock concert; is it only the music forcing you to move or is it also the flow of the crowd? You can detect entrainment in rituals as well. If you have taken part in the Shiite Moharram ritual, you will have noticed that people, tapping on their heart, is a form of entrainment, it is formed by the beat and the synchronisation is extraordinary. This example can also be seen in Kurdish ritual dances, in which very large crowds dance around a circle, people are in sync with the music and most importantly with each other, and this is rooted in the instinctive synchronisation with the environment, they have never been taught how to do this.

* Zentner, M., & Eerola, T. (2010). Rhythmic engagement with music in infancy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(13), 5768-5773.

This article is originally published on Underline Magazine

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