June 4 (UPI) -- Some people may simply be born with an ear for music, according to a new study.
Researchers developed a new technique to determine whether infants have the capacity to hear the highs and lows, or major and minor notes in music. Their experiments suggest some 6-month-olds can identify differences in musical tones.
Previous studies have shown that roughly 30 percent of adults, with or without musical training, are capable of differentiating between major and minor tones. When scientists tested 6-month-old infants, using a combination of eye-movement tracking and verbal cues, they found the same percentage were able to identify differences in musical tones.
The latest findings, published Thursday in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, suggest the ability is innate, or genetic, in origin.
"At 6 months, it's highly unlikely that any of these infants have had any formal training in music," lead author Scott Adler, associate professor of psychology at the York University's Center for Vision Research in Britain, said in a news release. "Yes, parents play music for children. All children in western civilization hear music, but they don't get that specific training in music. This breakdown, therefore, is due to some inborn mechanism."
The new research also confirms what previous studies showed, which is that there is no correlation between musical training and an ability to discern between major and minor tones.
To test the ability of infants to identify between highs and lows, researchers played a series of notes in either major or minor tones. After the notes, a picture would appear either to the right or left, depending on whether the sequence featured minor or major notes. In a followup experiment, scientists played sequences that failed to predict the location of the subsequent image.
"What we measured over time was how the infants learned the association between which tone they heard and where the picture is going to show up," said Adler. "If they can tell the difference in the tone, over time, when they hear the major notes for example, they'll make an eye movement to the location for the picture even before the picture appears because they can predict this. This is what we are measuring."
Once the infants had a chance to learn the association between the tones and image direction, roughly one-third of the 6-month-olds were able to predict with their eye movements -- with almost perfect accuracy -- where the image would appear following the tone sequences.
Authors of the new study suggest the findings could have implications for language development.
"There is a connection between music, music processing and mathematical abilities, as well as language, so whether these things connect up to those abilities is an unknown," Adler said. "However, when people talk to babies they change the intonation of their voice and the pitch of their voice so they're changing from major to minor. That is actually an important component for babies to learn language. If you don't have the capacity it might affect that ability in learning language."