Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The developmental origins of musicality

Abstract

The study of musical abilities and activities in infancy has the potential to shed light on musical biases or dispositions that are rooted in nature rather than nurture. The available evidence indicates that infants are sensitive to a number of sound features that are fundamental to music across cultures. Their discrimination of pitch and timing differences and their perception of equivalence classes are similar, in many respects, to those of listeners who have had many years of exposure to music. Whether these perceptual skills are unique to human listeners is not known. What is unique is the intense human interest in music, which is evident from the early days of life. Also unique is the importance of music in social contexts. Current ideas about musical timing and interpersonal synchrony are considered here, along with proposals for future research.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Standard and comparison melodies presented in C-major.

Ivelisse Robles

References

  1. 1

    Hauser, M.D., Chomsky, N. & Fitch, W.T. The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve? Science 298, 1569–1579 (2002).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Davidson, L. Tonal structures of children's early songs. Mus. Percept. 2, 361–373 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Rubin, D.C. Memory in Oral Traditions: the Cognitive Psychology of Epics, Ballads and Counting-out Rhymes (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1995).

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Patel, A. Language, music and the brain. Nat. Neurosci. 6 674–681 (2003).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Besson, M.B. & Schon, D. Comparison between language and music. Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 930, 232–258 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Hockett, C.F. The problem of universals in language. in Universals of Language 2nd edn. (ed. Greenberg, J.H.) 1–29 (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1966).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Pinker, S. How the Mind Works (Norton, New York, 1997).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Merriam, A.P. The Anthropology of Music (Northwestern Univ. Press, Evanston, Illinois, 1964).

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Sloboda, J.A. & O'Neill, S.A. Emotions in everyday listening to music. in Music and Emotion: Theory and Research (eds. Juslin, P.N. & Sloboda J.A.) 415–429 (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, UK, 2001).

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Trehub, S.E. & Trainor, L.J. Singing to infants: lullabies and play songs. Adv. Inf. Res. 12, 43–77 (1998).

    Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Benzon, W. Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic Books, New York, 2001).

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Juslin, P.N. Communicating emotion in musical performance. in Music and Emotion: Theory and Research (eds. Juslin, P.N. & Sloboda, J.A.) 309–337 (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, UK, 2001).

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Scherer, K.R. & Zentner, M.R. Emotional effects of music: Production rules. in Music and Emotion: Theory and Research (eds. Juslin, P.N. & Sloboda, J.A.) 361–392 (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, UK, 2001).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Trehub, S.E., Thorpe, L.A. & Morrongiello, B.A. Organizational processes in infants' perception of auditory patterns. Child Dev. 58, 741–749 (1987).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Werner, L.A. Interpreting developmental psychoacoustics. in Developmental Psychoacoustics (eds. Werner, L.A. & Rubel, E.W.) 47–88 (Amer. Psychol. Assoc., Washington, DC, 1992).

    Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Trehub, S.E., Schneider, B.A. & Henderson, J.L. Gap detection in infants, children and adults. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 98, 2532–2541 (1995).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Trehub, S.E. Human processing predispositions and musical universals. in The Origins of Music (eds. Wallin, N.L., Merker, B. & Brown, S.) 427–448 (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Trehub, S.E., Thorpe, L.A. & Trainor, L.J. Infants' perception of good and bad melodies. Psychomusicology 9, 5–19 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Trainor, L.J. & Trehub, S.E. What mediates infants' and adults' superior processing of the major over the augmented triad? Mus. Percept. 11, 185–196 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Trehub, S.E., Schellenberg, E.G. & Kamenetsky, S.B. Infants' and adults' perception of scale structure. J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 25, 965–975 (1999).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Schellenberg, E.G. & Trehub, S.E. Natural musical intervals: Evidence from infant listeners. Psychol. Sci. 7, 272–277 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Trainor, L.J. & Heinmiller, B.M. The development of evaluative responses to music: Infants prefer to listen to consonance over dissonance. Inf. Behav. Dev. 21, 77–88 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Trainor, L.J., Tsang, C.D. & Cheung, V.H.W. Preference for sensory consonance in 2-and 4-month-old infants. Mus. Percept. 20, 187–194 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Zentner, M.R. & Kagan, J. Perception of music by infants. Nature 383, 29 (1996).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Trehub, S.E. Musical predispositions in infancy. Ann. NY Acad. Sci. 930, 1–16 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Sachs, C. The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West (Norton, New York, 1943).

  27. 27

    Hauser, M.D. & McDermott, J. The evolution of the music faculty: comparative perspectives. Nat. Neurosci. 6, 663–668 (2003).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Jusczyk, P.W. The Discovery of Spoken Language (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997).

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Saffran, J.R. Absolute pitch in infancy and adulthood: the role of tonal structure. Dev. Sci. 6, 35–43 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Saffran, J.R., Loman, M.M. & Robertson, R.R.W. Infant memory for musical experiences. Cognition 77, B15–B23 (2000).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    Krumhansl, C.L. & Keil, F.C. Acquisition of the hierarchy of tonal functions in music. Mem. Cognit. 10, 243–251 (1982).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    Trainor, L.J. & Trehub, S.E. Key membership and implied harmony in Western tonal music: developmental perspectives. Percept. Psychophys. 56, 125–132 (1994).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33

    Smith, J.D., Kemler-Nelson, D.G., Grohskopf, L.A. & Appleton, T. What child is this? What interval was that? Familiar tunes and music perception in novice listeners. Cognition 52, 23–54 (1994).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  34. 34

    Werker, J.F. & Tees, R.C. Influences on infant speech processing. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 50, 509–535 (1999).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. 35

    Trainor, L.J. & Trehub, S.E. A comparison of infants' and adults' sensitivity to Western musical structure. J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 18, 394–402 (1992).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  36. 36

    Lynch, M.P., Eilers, R.E., Oller, D.K. & Urbano, R.C. Innateness, experience and music perception. Psychol. Sci. 1, 272–276 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. 37

    Burns, E.M. Intervals, scales, and tuning. in The Psychology of Music 2nd edn. (ed. Deutsch, D.) 215–264 (Academic Press, San Diego, 1999).

    Google Scholar 

  38. 38

    Mâche, F.-B. The necessity of and problems with a universal musicology. in The Origins of Music (eds. Wallin, N.L., Merker, B. & Brown, S.) 473–479 (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  39. 39

    Nettl, B. An ethnomusicologist contemplates universals in musical sound and musical culture. in The Origins of Music (eds. Wallin, N.L., Merker, B. & Brown, S.) 463–472 (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  40. 40

    Hulse, S.H. & Cynx, J. Relative pitch perception is constrained by absolute pitch in songbirds (Mimus Molothrus and Sturnus). J. Comp. Psychol. 99, 176–196 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. 41

    Hurly, T.A., Ratcliffe, L., Weary, D.M. & Weisman, R. White-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) can perceive pitch change in conspecific song by using the frequency ratio independent of the frequency difference. J. Comp. Psychol. 106, 388–391 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. 42

    MacDougall-Shackleton, S.A. & Hulse, S.H. Concurrent absolute and relative pitch processing by European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). J. Comp. Psychol. 110, 139–146 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. 43

    Moody, D.B., Stebbins, W.C. & May, B.J. Auditory perception of communication signals by Japanese monkeys. in Comparative Perception Vol. 2 (eds. Stebbins, W.C. & Berkley, M.A.) 311–343 (Wiley, New York, 1990).

    Google Scholar 

  44. 44

    Wright, A.A., Rivera, J.J., Hulse, S.H., Shyan, M. & Neiworth, J.J. Music perception and octave generalization in rhesus monkeys. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 129, 291–307 (2000).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  45. 45

    Trainor, L.J. & Trehub, S.E. Musical context effects in infants and adults: Key distance. J. Exp. Psychol. Hum. Percept. Perform. 19, 615–626 (1993).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  46. 46

    Marler, P. Innate learning preferences: signals for communication. Dev. Psychobiol. 23, 557–568 (1990).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  47. 47

    Dowling, W.J. & Harwood, D.L. Music Cognition (Academic Press, Orlando, Florida, 1986).

    Google Scholar 

  48. 48

    Fernald, A. Prosody in speech to children: prelinguistic and linguistic functions. Ann. Child Dev. 8, 43–80 (1991).

    Google Scholar 

  49. 49

    Trehub, S.E., Unyk, A.M. & Trainor, L.J. Adults identify infant-directed music across cultures. Inf. Behav. Dev. 16, 193–211 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. 50

    Bergeson, T.R. & Trehub, S.E. Absolute pitch and tempo in mothers' songs to infants. Psychol. Sci. 13, 72–75 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. 51

    Masataka, N. Preference for infant-directed singing in 2-day-old hearing infants of deaf parents. Dev. Psychol. 35, 1001–1005 (1999).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  52. 52

    Trainor, L.J. Infant preferences for infant-directed versus noninfant-directed playsongs and lullabies. Inf. Behav. Dev. 19, 83–92 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. 53

    Trehub, S.E. & Nakata, T. Emotion and music in infancy. Musicae Scientiae (special issue) 37–61 (2001–2002).

    Google Scholar 

  54. 54

    Masataka, N. Perception of motherese in a signed language by 6-month-old deaf infants. Dev. Psychol. 32, 874–879 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. 55

    Masataka, N. Perception of motherese in Japanese sign language by 6-month-old hearing infants. Dev. Psychol. 34, 241–246 (1998).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  56. 56

    Dissanayake, E. Homo aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (Free Press, New York, 1992).

    Google Scholar 

  57. 57

    McNeill, W.H. Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995).

    Google Scholar 

  58. 58

    Merker, B. Synchronous chorusing and human origins. in The Origins of Music (eds. Wallin, N.L., Merker, B. & Brown, S.) 315–327 (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  59. 59

    Csikszentmihalyi, M. Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper & Row, New York, 1990).

    Google Scholar 

  60. 60

    Freeman, W.J. A neurobiological role of music in social bonding. in The Origins of Music (eds. Wallin, N.L., Merker, B. & Brown, S.) 411–424 (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2000).

    Google Scholar 

  61. 61

    Wallin, N.L. Biomusicology (Pendragon Press, Stuyvesant, New York, 1991).

    Google Scholar 

  62. 62

    Walker-Andrews, A. Infants' perception of expressive behaviors: differentiation of multimodal information. Psychol. Bull. 121, 437–456 (1997).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  63. 63

    Peretz, I. Et al. Congenital amusia: a disorder of fine-grained pitch discrimination. Neuron 33, 185–191 (2002).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

The preparation of this paper was assisted by grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Thanks to G. Schellenberg for preparing the supplementary audio examples.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Supplementary information

Supplementary Audio 1.

The original or standard melody followed by a comparison melody (in a different key) incorporating a four-semitone pitch change35. Because the change is consistent with the structure of the original melody and is highly conventional, it is difficult to notice despite the large pitch difference. (WAV 792 kb)

Supplementary Audio 2.

The original or standard melody followed by a comparison melody (in a different key) incorporating a one-semitone pitch change35. Because the change violates the musical structure of the original melody, it is readily detectable despite the small pitch difference. (WAV 792 kb)

Supplementary Video 1.

A mother singing a popular children’s song to her 6-month-old infant. Note the expressiveness evident in the mother’s voice, facial expression and movements. Maternal performances are highly stereotyped in the sense that they are nearly identical on different occasions. (MOV 1089 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Trehub, S. The developmental origins of musicality. Nat Neurosci 6, 669–673 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn1084

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing