Babies Use Rhythms to Adapt to Their Culture, Study Hints

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.

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