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Newborns pick up the beat

Days after birth, babies display neural signs of detecting a rhythmic beat, a capacity that may be critical for learning music

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4:57pm, January 26, 2009

Sonny and Cher once crooned that the beat goes on, but little did they know that the beat starts up within days of birth. A new study indicates that the brains of 2- to 3-day-old babies recognize when a rhythmic drum sequence lacks its initial beat, or downbeat. The downbeat corresponds to the downstroke of a conductor’s baton at the beginning of a musical measure.

Newborns automatically perceive the downbeat of a sequence of sounds, thankfully without having to snap their fingers or tap their toes, says psychologist and study director István Winkler of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest, who reports the work with colleagues online January 26 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s unclear to what extent this ability depends on innate biology versus hearing rhythmic sounds, such as a mother’s heartbeat, in the womb, Winkler notes.

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