‘Primitive intelligence’ in audition refers to the capacity of the auditory system to adaptatively model the acoustic regularity and react neurophysiologically to violations of such regularity, thus supporting the ability to predict future auditory events. In the present study, event-related brain potentials to pairs of tones were recorded in 11 human newborns to determine the infants' ability to extract an abstract acoustic rule, the direction of a frequency change. Most of the pairs (standard, P = 0.875) were of ascending frequency (i.e. the second tone higher than the first), while the remaining pairs (deviant, P = 0.125) were of descending frequency (the second tone being lower). Their frequencies varied among seven levels to prevent discrimination between standard and deviant pairs on the basis of absolute frequencies. We found that event-related brain potentials to deviant pairs differed in amplitude from those to standard pairs at 50–450 ms from the onset of the second tone of a pair, indicating the infants' ability to represent the abstract rule. This finding suggests the early ontogenetic origin of ‘primitive intelligence’ in audition that eventually may form a prerequisite for later language acquisition.