Sunday, August 15, 2010

birth of the beat

Sciencenews | “Babies are born with a musical readiness that includes a basic sense of timing and rhythm,” declares Trevarthen, of the University of Edinburgh.

Scientists have been finding that these chubby-cheeked cherubs heed a musical sense that moves them and grooves them long before they utter a word. Within a day or two after birth, babies recognize the first beat in a sound sequence; neural signs of surprise appear when that initial “downbeat” goes missing. Classical music lights up specific hearing areas in newborns’ right brains. Even more intriguingly, babies enter the world crying in melodic patterns that the little ones have heard in their mothers’ conversations for at least two months while in the womb (SN: 12/5/09, p. 14).

But infants do much more than pick up beats and mimic melodies, says Trevarthen. An inborn musical knack gets parlayed by babies into emotional banter with attending adults, who possess their own musical feel for infant care. Adults around the world intuitively speak to infants using a singsong, vocally exaggerated mix of words and sounds known as motherese.

Trevarthen rejects the notion that babies passively absorb adults’ googly-eyed gab. Instead, he holds, infants intentionally prompt musical exchanges with adults, and infants know when they’re being invited by a grown-up to interact. Here, the currency of communication consists of coordinated exchanges of gestures, facial expressions, coos, squeals and other sounds. Trevarthen and like-minded researchers call this wordless conversation “communicative musicality.” Babies’ natural musical aptitude gets them in sync with mothers. Within weeks of birth, mom and baby compose brief musical vignettes that tune up a budding relationship.

“Our brains possess a storytelling sense that is an essential component of musicality from the beginning,” says Trevarthen.

From his perspective, musical story­telling prepares infants to learn the rhythms and format of a native language. Adult forms of music, as well as dance and drama, spring from the intricately structured yarns spun by babies and mothers.

New research probing these early musical stories indicates that moms and tots vocally express and share emotions in finely calibrated ways that differ in some respects across cultures. Other findings suggest that mothers everywhere prod babies to sing and act out simple songs as a prelude to learning cultural practices.

And women who suffer from personality and mental disorders fail to connect musically with their babies, investigators find. Infants whose first relationship strikes a sour note may display social and emotional problems later in childhood.

But like healthy babies, Trevarthen notes, these unfortunate tykes try their darndest to relate musically with whoever is available.

Trevarthen’s views draw criticism, though, from many cognitive psychologists and musicologists. They regard music as a universal practice, with still-mysterious evolutionary origins, that infants learn from their native cultures without the help of an innate timekeeper. From their first days, babies seamlessly learn to keep a beat and to prefer the same melodies that adults do, from this perspective. Some critics suspect that Trevarthen and his colleagues, not babies and mothers, are telling musical stories.