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The developmental origins of musicality


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.

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

Ivelisse Robles


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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.

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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)

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Trehub, S. The developmental origins of musicality. Nat Neurosci 6, 669–673 (2003).

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