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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Children infer the behavioral contexts of unfamiliar foreign songs


Humans readily form musical inference: upon hearing a Blackfoot lullaby, a Korean listener is far more likely to judge the music’s function as “to soothe a baby” than as “for dancing”. Are such inferences driven by experience, or does the mind naturally detect form-function links? We tested this in a large online sample of 2418 children, who were played songs from 70 world cultures and guessed the original behavioral context. Results show that inferences were reliable, with practically no improvement in performance from the youngest (age 3) to oldest (age 12). Moreover, their intuitions tightly correlated with adults’ intuitions about the same songs (? = 85,068). And both children’s and adults’ intuitions were predictable from a few key musical features of the songs. These results support the existence of universal links between form and function in music, and imply that sensitivity to these links is minimally, if at all, experience-dependent.

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