Babies may be born with a predisposition to dance and find music - specifically, rhythm and tempo - more engaging than speech, according to a study of infants aged between five months and two years old.

While predisposition towards music may be innate, researchers are unsure why it developed in humans. "One possibility is that it was a target of natural selection for music or that it has evolved for some other function that just happens to be relevant for music processing," the authors write.

For the study, 120 infants listened to a variety of audio stimuli including classical music, rhythmic beats and speech. Their spontaneous movements were recorded by video and 3D motion-capture technology and compared across the different stimuli.

Professional ballet dancers were also used to analyze the extent to which the babies matched their movement to the music.

Infants’ rhythmic movements were assessed by multiple methods involving manual coding from video excerpts and innovative 3D motion-capture technology. The findings appear this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Babies in the study engaged in more rhythmic movement to music than to speech and exhibited tempo flexibility to some extent. Results also revealed that "children were able to synchronize their movements with the music the more they smiled," said Dr Marcel Zentner, from the University of York's Department of Psychology.

Citation: Marcel Zentnera, Tuomas Eerola, 'Rhythmic engagement with music in infancy', PNAS, March 2010; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1000121107