When listening to music we often respond with movement of some sort. Some people will openly dance to what they hear, others will only slightly move their body, and some will tap their toe without realizing that they are moving. The ability to synchronize body movements to an external auditory stimulus has been widely explored in the literature. From this research we know that we can entrain (or synchronize) to a pulse without having to think about it (see Thaut, 2005 for in-depth review). But what about the infant? Do young children move their bodies to music?
This was the topic of a recent research study, where infant’s movements were tracked in music and speech conditions using 3D motion analysis. Using this technology, Zentner & Eerola (2010) found that infants (5-24 mo.) displayed significantly more rhythmic movements (3+ rhythmic repetitions of a movement) in the music and rhythm conditions than in speech conditions. Movements were not found to be synchronized but showed some changes with different tempo music.
You’ve probably seen an infant do the baby bounce to music or the young ones grooving in the “single ladies” track on YouTube. This study provides some empirical evidence that young children do engage in musical stimulus and have overt expression of this engagement with movement. They show more of this engaged movement to music than speech (even Infant-Directed speech). However, this movement is not synchronized to the beat, which is no surprise.
Some studies have shown that infants can entrain to tasks medicated by Central Pattern Generators (i.e., sucking and breathing) to a tactile stimulus in early infancy (see Barlow & Estep, 2006). These important tasks require no cognitive input and involve dedicated networks that can be modulated using an external stimulus. This is different from asking a child to “move to the beat”, which involves perceptual motor feedback. Studies on motor synchronization of the limbs in children have shown that children are variable in their movements until about 7 years of age ( Smoll, 1974; Thomas & Moon, 1976; Volman & Geuze, 2000).
In the clinic: I don’t see a direct transfer of this particular study into the clinic, as we need more research on how music can influence the child’s motor system for the clinic. Studies on children and synchronization taken together may provide evidence that the young child does react to rhythm but lacks the skills to match a stimulus due to development – an this is in child without disabilities. Therefore, there is no need for concern when little Maya isn’t playing exactly on the beat.
Side Note: This study also looked at positive affect with rhythmic movement, but the way in which they did this didn’t make sense to me (via observation of dancers). They do note a positive relationship between smiles and synchronous movements.
Zentner & Eerola, T. (2010). Rhtyhmic engagement with music in infancy. Proc Natl Acad Sci., 107(13), 5768-73. PMID: 20231438