Infant Perception and Cognition

Work in the Center for Music Learning addresses fundamental questions about human perception and cognition. Eugenia Costa-Giomi  Professor in Music and Human Learning, and Leslie Cohen, Professor in Developmental Psychology, study the formation of musical categories in infancy.  Graduate students in music and psychology are actively involved in the testing of infants at the Children’s Research Lab.


Imagine walking down a school hallway past the music room. From behind the door you hear a young child struggling to play a melody on the soprano recorder. The sound comes in fits and starts. There are many hesitations, notes overblown, wrong notes played and (sometimes) corrected. It’s quite a mess. Yet after very few seconds of listening, you effortlessly identify the attempted melody as Beethovens’ “Ode to Joy.” How did you perform such an impressive perceptual-cognitive feat?

hands.jpgThe differences between Beethoven’s version and little Skippy’s recorder rendition are far greater than the similarities between them. The tonality, timbre, loudness, register, pitch, and rhythm of the original theme all are different; only a vague semblance of the melody’s contour is preserved. How do our minds disregard the many obvious differences and still recognize the elements of melodic structure in a tune that we have undoubtedly heard performed in many different ways? Of course, our ability to do just that is essential for understanding music.

Recognizing equivalence among stimuli that are not the same involves a cognitive process called categorization. Our ability to categorize allows us to group similar stimuli together, which makes the processing of new information more efficient. Categorization requires that one first discriminate that two or more stimuli are different and then recognize that, despite these differences, the stimuli are indeed similar in some critically important respect and thus are members of the same category. You are able to recognize that Skippy’s trying to play “Ode to Joy” because you are able to disregard the many differences between your recording of the Chicago Symphony and Skippy’s recorder playing while focusing on the similarities between the two.

Categorization is fundamental to human cognition and perception; even infants categorize the stimuli in their environments. The types of categories that infants use during the first two years of life and the ways in which category learning takes place have been studied extensively, but the formation of categories in music remains largely unexplored. 

Last year, we completed three experiments with 7-month-olds to study infant categorization of melody. We found that 7-month olds can discriminate timbre and melody and that timbre is a very salient musical feature for young infants, results that are consistent with previous research. We found, more specifically, that infants can recognize the sound of a single instrument playing different melodies but cannot recognize a single melody when it’s played by different instruments. Our results suggest that it is difficult for 7-month-olds to habituate to renditions of a melody played by different instruments. In fact, exposure to this type of stimuli (hearing the same melody played repeatedly by different instruments) may actually hinder infants’ ability to discriminate between melodies. Of particular interest to us is the possibility that some music stimuli may be too complex for 7-month-olds and may so overwhelm them that it results in a regression in musical development. 

Our continuing investigations will explore many questions about infant perceptions of music. At what age do infants recognize a melody when it is played by different instruments or sung by different voices? At what age do infants categorize melody? Can infants disassociate melody from timbre in music? Is certain music particularly appropriate for the development of categorization during infancy? On which aspects of the music do infant focus their attention? How can we direct infants’ attention to specific musical features? How does the development of categorization in music parallel the development of categorization in language? Are developmental changes in musical understanding similar to those that occur in language learning?

Questions like these, concerning the study of melody and timbre, are central to our understanding of the salient elements of infant music perception. We hope to increase our understanding of these fundamental human experiences.

Eugenia Costa-Giomi
Professor in Music and Human Learning


Doctoral Students

Lab Alumni

Recent Papers

Costa-Giomi, E. (2013). Perceiving differences and similarities in music: Melodic categorization during the first years of life. Perspectives: Journal of the Early Childhood Music & Movement Association, 8(2). [pdf]