Bouncing Babies Feel the Beat

Body movement teaches musical rhythm perception

Bouncing a baby on your knee while singing a song or nursery rhyme is a sure-fire way to elicit giggles and grins. It also happens to be how babies learn to dance to the beat for the rest of their lives.

Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario have found that musical rhythm perception—the ability to hear the beat in music and move in time with it—is developed through experience during the first year of life.

Their study focused on how movement influences auditory development. In their first experiment they gave a group of 7-month-old babies a “training session” in which the babies listened to a 2-minute repetition of an ambiguous (without accented beats) rhythm pattern. Half the infants were simultaneously bounced on every second beat, and half on every third beat.

After the listening and bouncing session, the rhythm pattern was played again for the babies, this time with the beat accented on either every second beat or every third beat. The infants chose to listen longer (by turning their head toward the source of the sound) to the version of the rhythm pattern that matched the beats on which they were bounced. Thus, the rhythm of the bouncing they experienced determined which musical pattern they later preferred.

A subsequent experiment examined whether the infants would watch another person bouncing to the beat and develop a preference of their own based on that observation. They did not, indicating that movement of the infant’s own body was essential for the development of their auditory preferences.

These studies reveal that there is a strong multisensory connection between our ability to hear rhythms and to move our bodies in time to those rhythms. Integrating these senses—learning to use both simultaneously and to let each inform the other—is one of many essential developmental achievements of the first year of life.

As with other playful interactions, a baby’s delight and glee in being bounced and hearing music tells us that this is yet another experience that encourages healthy development.

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