We begin our relationship with rhythm incredibly early in our development. Before birth the prenatal infant is aware of sound and is able to perceive and respond to basic rhythmic stimulation from very early in gestation. This musical readiness allows the prenatal infant to become familiar with uterine sounds, her parents voices, and the sounds of what will be her daily life.
Rhythmic awareness of the external environment is a powerful adaptive tool, enabling the infant to feel less stress post birth and most importantly, to enhance bonding with her parents. While our perception of rhythm is innate it is the specificity of this early aural awareness that is remarkable.
The prenatal infants perception of rhythm is incredibly detailed, allowing her to differentiate the smallest differences and changes in rhythmic meter. This perception is finer than is required for musical processing and suggests that in infancy our rhythmic discrimination skills are for more than just understanding music. Rhythm is firmly embedded in the infants’ early vocal and gestural interactions with parents.
Research suggests that the specific timing of these interchanges during infant directed speech or singing is vital to the healthy development of the infant/mother bond. Sensitively timed turn-taking fosters emotional and communicative connectedness and resilience through the sharing of affective states between mother and infant.
Through the contingency and reciprocity of these interchanges the infant learns that her mother is attuned to her needs and thus the world is safe and predictable. Initially the infant prefers the rhythm of her mothers’ voice speaking and singing. She continues to respond instinctively to rhythm and to develop increased rhythmic ability, beginning to experiment with rhythmic changes in her vocalisations.
As the child develops she remembers rhythms in larger and larger ‘chunks’ and will remember rhythmic patterns better when accompanied by movement. As she matures the young child begins to enjoy the faster rhythm of play songs. These are usually in duple time and far more rhythmically varied than the slow rocking rhythm of lullabies. This duple time helps the young child to coordinate her physical movements to music, gaining greater competency as she engages in action and movement songs. She can discriminate the beat and pulse of playsongs and manipulate the elements of rhythm in her own playful vocalizations.
By age 3 the young child is capable of a large range of physical movements in response to music and is able to reproduce rhythm at around 75% accuracy. The early years are a time of rich development in the childs perception and physical manifestation of rhythm.