Sunday, July 22, 2007

Can newborns make sense of rhythm?

Last month our research group organized the annual EmCAP workshop in Amsterdam: A consortium of four European universities that collaborate in trying to understand how cognition might emerge in active perception. Or, in other words, how we accumulate knowledge in the world by actively being engaged with it. Music was chosen as the ideal domain to figure that out.

One of the big challenges of this project is to see whether, and if so to what extent, newborns have musical capabilities, and how exposure to music allows cognitive constructs like harmony or meter to emerge. More and more studies show that even a few month old babies have all kinds of perceptual and musical skills that allow them, for instance, to note the difference between violations in complex Balkan rhythms and (for us) more straightforward western rhythms, a difference that adult listeners, in general, find difficult to notice.

In the EmCAP project, in collaboration with the Bulgarian baby-lab, we planned to start this spring to have newborns —like those in the picture above—listen to syncopated and non-syncopated rhythms as a way to find out whether they are sensitive to the concept of meter as an emergent property. Something that could, alternatively, well be simply a learned music theoretical and/or cultural concept. We hope to find out ...


  1. my name is miri and istudy musicology in tel aviv u
    i suggest you to talk with dr. zohar eithan. i think one of his students had done aresearch with babies in which she checked babies reactions to sounds that have pattern and sounds whithout patterns. her findings where amazing (if i remember correctly)
    anyhow, i myself try to check children reaction to metaphors of high and low in music.i find your blog very interesting. many thanks

  2. Thanks for your reaction. I am quite familiar with Zohar Eitan's research. His work on metaphor is very original. Success with your research.