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Study Says Babies Born With Musical Preferences

By Medora S. Bross

Babies are born predisposed to like certain musical sounds, according to a study by two researchers in the Psychology Department.

The study examined whether babies are born with an innate preference to certain types of music and concluded that babies prefer a consonant sound rather than a dissonant sound.

The study was conducted by Starch Professor of Psychology Jerome Kagan and Marcel R. Zentner, who was a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard last year and is now at the Institute of Psychology in Geneva, Switzerland.

Kagan and Zentner created a tape of alternating consonant and dissonant sounds using a synthesizer at MIT. They then played the tape individually to 32 four-month-old babies and videotaped their responses.

A dissonant sound, like the sound created by an untuned piano, is generally unpleasant. A consonant sound is more pleasing to hear.

Overwhelmingly, when the consonant sounds were played, the babies would look towards the speaker and remain still, the study reported.

However, when the dissonant music was played, the babies would look away from the speaker, move around or cry.

"They not only preferred consonant music, but they disliked dissonant music," Kagan said.

Jessica Steigerwald, coordinator of the HAND program, said the results of the study were consistent with her own experiences.

"My 10-week-old baby, Julia Calliezandra, always smiles gleefully when we play her a 'You are My Sunshine' tape," Steigerwald said. "However, when we played her ten seconds of an Alanis Morissette tape she cried for five minutes."

Kagan said these findings help support the theory that babies are not the "blank tablet" they were once commonly thought to be.

He said babies are born with innate likes or dislikes, but those tastes change as they get older.

"Even though humans when young don't like whiskey, bright lights or dissonant music...it is possible to acquire a taste through culture," he said.

According to Kagan, the report refutes psychologist Arnold Shoenberg's study that dissonant music is a matter of taste.

"This experiment shows him wrong," Kagan said.

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