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STANFORD -- Who's got rhythm? Who's got music? Babies, as it turns out. And very young ones, too.

Researchers in Stanford University's Department of Psychology already have found that babies of all cultures are remarkably good at interpreting the "music" of their parents' speech long before they understand the words.

But what about conventional music? Do very young infants prefer flowing musical phrases over musical hodgepodge? And if so, is this ability learned or innate?

To find out, the Stanford researchers presented 5- month-old infants with three very different musical excerpts: Mozart minuets, Bach chorales and typically dissonant excerpts by Bartok. (Only about a quarter of the infants ever had heard classical music before.)

The pieces were edited in two different ways. In the "appropriate" excerpts, a one-second pause was inserted at the end of each musical phrase, emphasizing the natural phrase structure. In the "inappropriate" excerpts, the pause was inserted in the middle of each phrase, disrupting the structure.

The babies could control how long each excerpt played by looking at a light or a checkerboard in the test booth. When they looked away, the music stopped.

In an earlier study using Mozart excerpts only, Carol Krumhansl of Cornell University and Peter Jusczyk of the State University of New York found that 6-month-old infants showed a marked preference for the appropriate excerpts, regardless of their previous exposure to classical music.

Similarly, the 5-month-old Stanford infants listened longer to all three appropriate excerpts - even the dissonant Bartok selections - but only if the first piece they heard was appropriate.

"When the first piece they heard was inappropriate, babies couldn't figure out the difference [between it and the well- structured excerpts]," said Stanford's Anne Fernald, associate professor of psychology and an expert on infant language development.

"These findings are interesting for two reasons," she said. "First, they show that infants appreciate musical phrase structure in musical forms they have never heard before. And second, it seems that hearing a 'well-structured' piece of music first helps the infant appreciate differences between well-structured and poorly structured pieces."

The question now, Fernald said, is whether babies are born with this sensitivity to music, or whether they learn it based on their own short experience with classical or Western popular music.

She plans to explore this question by presenting American infants with non-Western music (probably from India), which has a completely different tonal and rhythmic structure from anything they might have heard at home.

"Music is as universal as language in human cultures, and yet the brain mechanisms involved in understanding music are much less well-understood," Fernald said. "We're trying to see how the human brain has evolved to process music, just as it has evolved to process speech."

Fernald worked on the study with Maryam Asgari, who graduated from Stanford last year with a bachelor's degree in psychology, and graduate student John Pinto. The results were presented at the 1993 meeting of the Society for Research on Child Development.

-tmj/infant music-


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