A new research project called EmCAP has found that newborn babies pick up the subtle nuances of music while sleeping.
Project coordinator Susan Denham played music to newborn babies in sleep, and measured how their brains reacted to the sound.
Sleeping babies were hooked up to an encephalograph (EEG), an instrument able to measure brain activity using electrodes placed on the scalp.
The babies were then played music, to be more exact, simplified tone sequences, to test what sort of patterns they were sensitive to, and whether they would predict what was coming next based on what had gone before.
"The babies were presented with sequences of sounds of different tone colour - different musical instruments, if you like - but all of the same pitch. Occasionally, you play a sound of a different pitch and watch the EEG to see if they produce a distinctive reaction to this deviant sound," said Denham.
The researchers conducted similar tests to see whether the babies were sensitive to rhythmic and melodic patterns as well.
The results indicated that newborns had a sense of pitch from birth, and this was not something learned through experience as had previously been thought.
The experiments showed that the infants were even sensitive to the beat in music.
"The bottom line is we come into the world with brains that are continually looking for patterns, and telling us when there is something unexpected we should learn about," said Denham.
Istvan Winkler, who conducted the baby research, concluded that this capability allows babies to learn about their environment and the important actors within it.
The discoveries may be applied to developing early screening techniques and treatments for cognitive hearing problems.
The research has thrown new light on music cognition and brought practical benefits to the music technologists involved in the project.