The findings, based on the study of infants aged between five months and two years old, suggest that babies may be born with a predisposition to move rhythmically in response to music.
The research was conducted by Dr Marcel Zentner, from the University of York's Department of Psychology, and Dr Tuomas Eerola, from the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research at the University of Jyvaskyla.
Dr Zentner said: "Our research suggests that it is the beat rather than other features of the music, such as the melody, that produces the response in infants.
"We also found that the better the children were able to synchronize their movements with the music the more they smiled.
"It remains to be understood why humans have developed this particular predisposition. 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."
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 analyse the extent to which the babies matched their movement to the music.
The findings are published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition.
The research was part-funded by a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation.
The research "Rhythmic engagement with music in infancy" will be available in full at www.pnas.org.
The Department of Psychology at the University of York was ranked among the top ten in the UK in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise.
Find out more about the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Interdisciplinary Music Research at https://www.jyu.fi/hum/laitokset/musiikki/en/research/coe/.
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