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Foto: Gábor Stefanics

Fourteen years later, UvA scientists are now sure: Babies recognize beat in music

Sija van den Beukel,
27 november 2023 - 14:30

Sense of rhythm is indeed innate, according to UvA research published today in the journal Cognition. A recent study of 27 sleeping babies clears up remaining doubts and proves that newborns do indeed recognize the beat in music. “Music therefore also has a biological basis, which must have provided an advantage somewhere in our evolutionary past.”

Babies have a sense of a beat. This was demonstrated in the largest newborn baby lab in Hungary, where 27 newborn babies listened to different drum rhythms through headphones. Adhesives on the babies’ heads allowed UvA researchers to watch the brainwaves. The research leader was UvA professor of music cognition Henkjan Honing, who conducted a similar study before.


Here’s the thing. Back in 2009, Honing conducted a comparable study on 14 sleeping babies in the same baby lab in Hungary. Babies as young as two days old listened to drum rhythms from which a beat was occasionally omitted. The babies seemed to “expect” that beat because, at the moment of the missing beat, the brain showed a spike, a sign that their expectation had been violated. That research went global, but there was also criticism. Some claimed that the babies expected the missing beat because they remembered the sequence of sounds in the drum rhythms, regardless of regularity (statistical learning), not because they recognized the rhythm.

Foto: Daniël Rommens
Henkjan Honing


“I was getting more and more nervous,” Henkjan Honing says. “All our work after the 2009 study was based on the interpretation that newborns can recognize the measure in music.” After a replication of the study failed to materialize, Honing, along with Dutch and Hungarian colleagues, decided in 2015 to remove the uncertainty about the baby study itself and redo it with a different method and twice as many babies.


This time, the researchers had the babies hear two versions of a drumbeat. In the first, the timing was isochronous, that is, the interval between the sounds was always the same. This created a pulse or beat. In the other version, the exact same drum pattern was played, but with random timing (jittered). As a result, no beat perception was possible in this version, but the sequence of sounds could be learned. This allowed the researchers to distinguish between beat perception and statistical learning. Honing says: “The results show that beat perception is truly a separate mechanism, distinct from statistical learning, learning the sequence of sounds. By demonstrating the same principle with a different method, the evidence is even stronger. This removes any remaining doubts.”


Timing deaf

The fact that newborn babies are already musical is good news for researchers interested in the possible origins of music and musicality. “A sense of rhythm is one of the crucial elements that makes us musical animals. Our goal is to show that music is not only a cultural phenomenon but also has a biological basis and that it has provided an advantage somewhere in our evolutionary past.”

“A sense of measure is not uniquely human but has gradually evolved within primates”

The baby study is the final piece of a larger research project in which adults, musicians, non-musicians, and monkeys were tested for a sense of measure. Honing says: “This shows that a sense of measure is not uniquely human but has gradually evolved within primates.” Honing describes this theory in detail in his book Aap slaat Maat (Monkey’s Got Rhythm). “Some species of primates recognize the regularity, while macaques, for instance, do not pick up on a beat.”


As yet, the researchers have not encountered any people whose brains do not recognize the beat in music. “Beat deafness is a very rare phenomenon. We have found about six people worldwide who cannot recognize the difference between a march or a waltz. But even in them, the brain picks up the beat. The auditory cortex seems to function the same as in other people, except that beat-deaf individuals do not seem to have conscious access to this information.”


Before birth

What unborn babies learn was not included in this study. Honing says: “That period, too, is bound to have an influence on babies’ musicality because we know that in the last three months of pregnancy, hearing is already primed to memorize melodies. So our claim is that musicality is already present before birth, even prior to learning a language. Therefore, music is not only older than language but also active at an earlier time in humans, an idea I personally find fascinating.”