Are Infants And Adults Able To Detect Changes In Unfamiliar Meters?

30 May

Developmental research offers an opportunity to scrutinize the windows of time in which humans acquire certain cognitive abilities.  For example, during speech development, infants at birth are able to discern sounds from their native language as well as foreign languages, but as they reach the age of one they become less capable of discerning speech sounds that are not for their native language.  A similar phenomenon is observed with infant face perception: infants of 6 months can differentiate between human and non-human faces, but 9 month infants have greater difficulty doing so and show responses that are similar to adults.  Erin E. Hannon and Sandra E. Trehub investigated whether metric perception in infants showed a similar pattern.  Would younger infants be able to detect changes within two different meters, one familiar and one foreign?  Are infants better are detecting changes in unfamiliar and foreign meters than adults?  Past research found that adult western music listeners have great difficulty detecting changes in complex (non-isochronous) meters, but can easily perceive changes in simple (isochronous) meters (meters that are inherent to western music).  In order to investigate their questions, Hannon and Trehub drew on the previous adult research and used a three part experiment that incorporated both infants and adults.

The first experiment consisted of 52 participants who were 11-12 months of age.  Melodies, both with isochronous and non-isochronous meters, were taken from Balkan folk songs and played through speakers.  Each stimuli was played during a familiarization phase and then either left unchanged, or modified to alter the metrical value.  The experimenters were interested if the participants would detect these modifications to the metrical value.  Infant gaze was then measured to determine the longevity of infant listening time, and subsequently statistically analyzed to see if infants indeed picked up on these subtle changes in rhythmic value.  After experiment 1, the infants were given a CD of Balkan folk music (only non-isochronous meters) to listen to at home for a period of 1 – 2 weeks.  The CD condition was used to evaluate whether passive exposure to non-isochronous meter would aid in the recognition of rhythmic variations within complex meters.  Finally, a third experiment, emulating the infant conditions, was conducted with adult participants to establish whether passive exposure to foreign music would show a similar effect as in infant rhythmic discernment.

The study found that adults have great difficulty detecting changes in unfamiliar meters not native to ones culture.  Infants however, were more malleable to the passive-exposure of non-isochronous meters in the foreign music conditions and were able to detect changes in non-isochronous meters in foreign music better than the adult participants.  The researchers concluded that passive exposure to music of a particular culture results in culture-specific behavior during infant development.  Additionally, the researchers concluded that life long listening to western music might solidify mental schemas for isochronous meters in which non-isochronous meters are assimilated into (as demonstrated by the adult participants).

Hannon, E.E., & Trehub, S.E. (2005). Tuning in to musical rhythms: infants learn more readily than adults. PNAS, 102(35), 12639-12643.


4 Responses to “Are Infants And Adults Able To Detect Changes In Unfamiliar Meters?”

  1. Luc Duval June 2, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

    Were the adults given a CD to listen to, as well? If not, that would seem to me an error in equivalency.

    • Parker June 3, 2011 at 12:18 pm #

      Hi Luc! Great question! Yes, the adult were given the CD as well. Without the CD, that would be one faulty experimental design 😉

  2. Pam Chalkley June 3, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    This is awesome research! I’m so glad to see you doing this. All three of my boys are musically gifted, so I am a strong advocate of any research involving music and mental function. That it’s being done locally is even better.

    • Parker June 3, 2011 at 7:24 pm #

      Hi Pam! I am glad to hear of your support! I concur — this research is awesome! You should check out more of Dr. Erin Hannon’s research as it pertains to development and music cognition. Also, if you are around the Vegas area, we are always running studies with infants, children, and adults. If you want more information, or would like to participate in a study, you can get more info at our site (or just talk to me directly!):

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