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sensitivity to melody contour in both music and language

Newborns’ Cry Melody

Current Biology 19, 1994–1997, December 15, 2009 ª2009 Elsevier Ltd All rights reserved DOI 10.1016/j.cub.2009.09.064

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Is Shaped by Their Native Language

Birgit Mampe,1 Angela D. Friederici,2 Anne Christophe,3

and Kathleen Wermke1,* 1Center for Prespeech Development and Developmental Disorders, Department of Orthodontics, University of Würzburg, 97070 Würzburg, Germany 2Max-Planck-Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, 04103 Leipzig, Germany 3Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique, Ecole Normale Supérieure/CNRS, 75005 Paris, France


Human fetuses are able to memorize auditory stimuli from the external world by the last trimester of pregnancy, with

a particular sensitivity to melody contour in both music and language [1–3]. Newborns prefer their mother’s voice

over other voices [4–8] and perceive the emotional content of messages conveyed via intonation contours in maternal

speech (‘‘motherese’’) [9]. Their perceptual preference for the surrounding language [10–12] and their ability to distin-

guish between prosodically different languages [13–15] and pitch changes [16] are based on prosodic information,

primarily melody. Adult-like processing of pitch intervals allows newborns to appreciate musical melodies and

emotional and linguistic prosody [17]. Although prenatal exposure to native-language prosody influences newborns’

perception, the surrounding language affects sound produc-

tion apparently much later [18]. Here, we analyzed the crying patterns of 30 French and 30 German newborns with respect

to their melody and intensity contours. The French group preferentially produced cries with a rising melody contour,

whereas the German group preferentially produced falling contours. The data show an influence of the surrounding

speech prosody on newborns’ cry melody, possibly via vocal learning based on biological predispositions.


Cries of 60 healthy newborns, 30 born into French and 30 born into German monolingual families, were analyzed. Melody in neonates’ cries is characterized by single rising-and-then- falling arcs. These melody arcs were analyzed by determining the relative (normalized) time at which the maximum pitch (F0max) was reached [tnorm(F0max)] (see ‘‘Melody Contour Anal- ysis’’ in Experimental Procedures). Intensity contour analyses were performed in a corresponding manner for each cry.

As shown in Figure 1, a marked difference in the median values of tnorm(F0max) points to group-specific preferences for produced melody contours (French group, 0.60 s; German group, 0.45 s). The arithmetic means of tnorm(F0max) were significantly different in French (0.58 6 0.13 s) and German (0.44 6 0.15 s) newborns (Mann-Whitney test, p < 0.0001). Whereas French newborns preferred to produce rising melody contours, German newborns more often produced fallin

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