Babies Use Rhythms to Adapt to Their Culture, Study Hints

John Roach
for National Geographic News
September 21, 2005
By the time babies celebrate their first birthday, their ears are
already tuned to the rhythms and sounds of their culture,
researchers say.

The finding suggests that one-year-olds in North America, for example, notice subtle changes in waltz-like rhythms but not in the complex dance rhythms unique to other continents.

The study builds on research reported earlier this year that shows six-month-old babies are more adept at recognizing complex musical rhythms than adults.

Scientist described the latest findings last month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"In the most recent study, by 12 months of age babies are showing signs of tuning to the music of their culture," said Sandra Trehub, a psychologist at the University of Toronto at Mississauga who co-authored both studies.

Trehub and colleagues added 12-month-old infants to their mix of test subjects as part of an ongoing effort to chart how human brains develop over time.

Learning Ability

While the study found that year-old babies tune into the rhythms of their own musical heritage, the infants still have a better ear than adults for the complex rhythms unique to foreign music.

Year-old babies who passively listened to complex Balkan tunes a few times a day for several weeks were able to pick out errors in those rhythms on test day. Adults with a similar passive exposure to the tunes could not.

Trehub said language findings are similar. A child that begins to learn a foreign language in preschool will have a perfect accent in that language as they mature.

"The older they get, the more difficulty they will have with sound systems of [a foreign] language to the extent that it conflicts with something in the sound of their own language," she said.

Nevertheless, adults can and do learn to speak foreign languages quite well. Research shows the best method for adults to achieve fluency in a foreign language is interactive exposure.

Trehub said adults can likewise learn to discern the complexities of foreign rhythms through interactive learning, such as dance classes. When musicians miss a beat, dancers would take note.

Cultural Adaptation

Erin Hannon, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, co-authored both studies. She says the findings demonstrate how babies are adapting to their cultures in order to be more efficient animals.

"Adults become less sensitive to foreign rhythms because they become more efficient at processing familiar rhythmic structure of their own culture—this is natural and adaptive," Hannon said in a press statement.

Trehub, the University of Toronto psychologist, said babies are learning only what's relevant in their environment, which allows them to optimally direct their attention. "You learn … what to pay attention to and what to ignore," she said.

But what if parents want their children to be musically diverse? Should parents expose kids to a wide variety of music from their earliest days?

Trehub said the implications of the findings for parenting are unclear.

It's possible, for example, that babies exposed to a wide variety of music or languages will learn a little bit of everything but not enough of what's relevant to thrive in their own culture.

"This [research] doesn't come with advice about what one should do. It really is just an observation of how babies learn and what they know," Trehub said.

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