Bouncing Babies

Bouncing Babies Photo Credit: Clipart.com

Many musicians will tell you that they don't just hear music – they also feel it in their bodies. Turns out even babies do too.


How babies get rhythm. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Babies can learn music by feeling it as well as hearing it. That's according to psychologist Laurel Trainor of McMaster University in Canada. She and her colleagues asked mothers to bounce their babies to an ambiguous drum rhythm.

(Audio: Ambiguous rhythm)

Trainor: But half of the babies we bounced on every second beat, and half of the babies we bounced on every third beat. And what we wanted to know was whether that bouncing would actually influence how they interpreted that ambiguous rhythm pattern.

Later, when the babies heard the same rhythm with added accents, they showed clear preference for the patterns they were bounced to. The findings suggest that early musical training should involve more than just the ears. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

The design of this experiment is ingenious. Most music has a very clear beat that even a non-musician can count: most popular music accents every fourth beat (like “ONE-two-three-four”); waltzes accent every third (“ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three”), and marches every second (“ONE-two, ONE-two”). Normally, if you try to count a piece of music the wrong way, it feels awkward and off-base. (Try having someone sing “Happy Birthday,” which is a waltz. At the same time, count it out loud by threes, and then by fours. Which feels more natural?)

Here, using their music and math skills, the experimenters found a rhythm that could be heard as either a march or a waltz, depending on where the accents were added. But instead of adding the accents with sounds, they asked the babies’ mothers to add them with little bounces.

Later, the researchers added drumbeats to turn the rhythm into either a clear march or a clear waltz, and played them back to the babies. The babies paid more attention to the rhythm that matched the one they were bounced to. Other experiments have shown that babies pay more attention to familiar patterns than to unfamiliar ones. So, this experiment suggests that the babies had actually learned one pattern over the other through bouncing.

This didn’t work as well with other kinds of cues. For example, when the mothers conducted the piece with their hands, showing the accents with gestures, the babies didn' learn the rhythms. It may be that babies can learn rhythms through their bodies earlier in their development than they can through watching. If so, then early-childhood music classes may benefit from getting kids moving to the music, rather than just listening.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What’s unusual about the rhythm used in this experiment? Why did the researchers choose this rhythm?
  2. Suppose the researchers had used clear rhythms instead. For example, in the first part of the experiment, suppose half the babies heard an obvious waltz and were bounced on every third beat, while the other half heard an obvious march and were bounced on every second beat. How would that change the findings in the second half of the experiment?
  3. What if the babies had also learned rhythmic patterns from visual cues (like the mothers conducting with their hands). How would this change your interpretation of the study?

For Educators

The Musical Brain, a lesson on the Neuroscience for Kids site, critically examines several experiments that have attempted to connect music with memory and learning.

Read about other animals’ musical instincts in the National Geographic News article Do Animals Have an Innate Sense of Music?

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