Musical predispositions in infancy

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2001 Jun;930:1-16. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2001.tb05721.x.


Some scholars consider music to exemplify the classic criteria for a complex human adaptation, including universality, orderlying development, and special-purpose cortical processes. The present account focuses on processing predispositions for music. The early appearance of receptive musical skills, well before they have obvious utility, is consistent with their proposed status as predispositions. Infants' processing of musical or music-like patterns is much like that of adults. In the early months of life, infants engage in relational processing of pitch and temporal patterns. They recognize a melody when its pitch level is shifted upward or downward, provided the relations between tones are preserved. They also recognize a tone sequence when the tempo is altered so long as the relative durations remain unchanged. Melodic contour seems to be the most salient feature of melodies for infant listeners. However, infants can detect interval changes when the component tones are related by small-integer frequency ratios. They also show enhanced processing for scales with unequal steps and for metric rhythms. Mothers sing regularly to infants, doing so in a distinctive manner marked by high pitch, slow tempo, and emotional expressiveness. The pitch and tempo of mothers' songs are unusually stable over extended periods. Infant listeners prefer the maternal singing style to the usual style of singing, and they are more attentive to maternal singing than to maternal speech. Maternal singing also has a moderating effect on infant arousal. The implications of these findings for the origins of music are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Auditory Perception
  • Habituation, Psychophysiologic
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Maternal Behavior
  • Music*
  • Pitch Perception
  • Psychology, Child*