Scientists Study Dancing Babies ... Enough Said?

In perhaps the cutest study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, psychologist Marcel Zentner and Tuomas Eerola found that babies will spontaneously groove to music. While babies are not great dancers, they smile more when they do hit the beat.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Joining now is Flora Lichtman with our Video Pick of the Week. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Have you got any bacterial stuff for us this week?

LICHTMAN: Oh, no, although the subjects are probably bacteria-heavy. But I have two words for you: Tiny dancers.

FLATOW: Tiny - they're not those rotifers, I...

LICHTMAN: No, and I'm not talking about the Elton John song either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: "Tiny dancer." Not "Tiny Bubbles" or dancers.

LICHTMAN: No. This maybe...

FLATOW: Tiny dancers.

LICHTMAN: ...the cutest study ever published, I don't know. I think maybe.

FLATOW: The cutest study.

LICHTMAN: Yes. This researcher, Marcel Zentner found 120 babies and played them all different types of music and rhythmic sounds. And the question he had was if you play babies music - and these are kids that can't talk yet...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...just, you know, four to 20 months old or something...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...do they dance?

FLATOW: Do they dance if you play - I remember that bird that danced that you had.

LICHTMAN: Yes, and that's the...

FLATOW: Snowball, right?

LICHTMAN: Snowball makes a reappearance in this Video Pick of the Week...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: ...truth be told.

FLATOW: So let me just say - you have footage, you create a Video Pick of the Week, that's on our Web site at sciencefriday.com, that answers the question.

LICHTMAN: Right. So these researchers filmed 120 babies listening to music. And here is the answer: Babies do dance spontaneously.

FLATOW: They have rhythms.

LICHTMAN: Well, I mean, this is sort of the fine point of the study. They definitely move when they hear music, and it's not speech. It really is about music. And if you've seen baby Beyonce on YouTube, which has 10 million views, you're probably familiar with this phenomenon, but they're not great dancers. I mean, part of the study was that, you know, the babies are trying but they're not like nailing the beat. In fact, the bird was kind of better at it.

FLATOW: Well, and from watching your video, the - you interviewed the scientist who said one of the reasons is that they were just little babies and their motor skills are not developed.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, he was pretty defensive. He was like, you know, I don't know why you would expect them to be great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I don't see a TV show here, yeah, "Dancing with the Babies."

LICHTMAN: "Dancing with the Babies," yet, although I dont know.

FLATOW: I don't know if they're writing this down.

LICHTMAN: And one of the ways that they determined whether the babies were good dancers or not was through, sort of, sophisticated motion capture technology. And then the other way they did it - and this didn't make it in the video, but it's just amazing - they rounded up professional ballet dancers to watch the footage of the babies dancing.

And this researcher told me that these ballet dancers were just so touched to see these kids who were, you know, not thinking about it. They haven't been taught anything, but they have this sort of intrinsic reaction to music.

FLATOW: Wow, that's...

LICHTMAN: Just like Snowball the bird.

FLATOW: Snowball, as you say. So if you watch the video, Flora's Video Pick of the Week, you'll see a few babies who are dancing to the music, and you've compare them with Snowball a bit.

LICHTMAN: Yes, and a few professional dancers so you can see, really, the evolution of dance in this video.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: But, you know, maybe if you have - if your baby dances, we'd love to see some footage.

FLATOW: We could - yeah.

LICHTMAN: And I dont think I can ever get enough dancing baby footage. It's so cute.

FLATOW: Yeah. This - you've done some animal, pretty cute animal videos, but you...

LICHTMAN: This may trump it. I don't...

FLATOW: This is a cute...

LICHTMAN: Oh, right. And there's one more thing that really makes this the most heartwarming story I've ever heard of. The babies, so they're not that good at dancing, right? But when they did hit the beat...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...they smiled more.

FLATOW: Oh, my...

LICHTMAN: My heart is melting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Oh, don't drive off the road, folks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Your - it takes a lot to melt Flora's...

LICHTMAN: Ouch.

FLATOW: Sorry - no. How do I top this? So if you want us - see if your own heart melts, okay?

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: See if your own heart melts. Go to sciencefriday.com and look at our Video Pick of the Week. It's on the left side up there, babies dancing.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Let us know what you think. I mean, maybe it was just me. I'd like to know, is it just me that finds this really too cute to bear?

FLATOW: And people who have babies, let's see. You dont have children. Let's see if they think the same thing...

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...when they see their babies, like...

LICHTMAN: They're reminded of diaper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right, Flora, thank you for your (unintelligible).

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Flora Lichtman and our Video Pick of the Week. We have dozens of them up there in our video section. So if you want to send us some, we'd like to hear more from you.

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