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Experts find cultural differences in how we interpret rhythm

A team of researchers has recently discovered that humans across various societies exhibit a strong inclination towards perceiving and generating rhythms based on simple integer ratios, such as the uniform beat pattern of a 1:1:1 ratio. 

Yet, what’s truly fascinating about the study, which spanned 15 countries and included 39 diverse groups of participants, is the discovery that while there exists a universal predisposition towards certain rhythmic structures, the specific preferences for these ratios can significantly differ across cultures

Cultural nature of rhythm perception 

This research, which is among the most comprehensive of its kind, offers profound insights into the nature of music perception and cognition, suggesting both universal and culturally distinct elements.

“Our study provides the clearest evidence yet for some degree of universality in music perception and cognition, in the sense that every single group of participants that was tested exhibits biases for integer ratios. It also provides a glimpse of the variation that can occur across cultures, which can be quite substantial,” said study lead author Nori Jacoby, a former MIT postdoctoral fellow and now a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics

This statement highlights the study’s dual contribution to our understanding of music perception. It confirms a universal bias while also highlighting the rich tapestry of cultural diversity in musical rhythm preferences.

Mental representation of rhythm

The researchers suggest that the brain’s bias towards simple integer ratios might serve as an inherent error-correction mechanism, facilitating the preservation and consistent transmission of musical knowledge across human societies. 

“When people produce music, they often make small mistakes. Our results are consistent with the idea that our mental representation is somewhat robust to those mistakes, but it is robust in a way that pushes us toward our preexisting ideas of the structures that should be found in music,” explained study senior author Josh McDermott, an associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. 

This hypothesis offers a fascinating glimpse into how our cognitive processes might be shaping and preserving the musical traditions that are pivotal to human culture.

Perceiving different rhythms

Building upon their 2017 comparative analysis between American listeners and the Tsimane’ society in Bolivia, this new research vastly expands the geographical and cultural scope of the investigation. 

The inclusion of 39 groups from diverse backgrounds, ranging from North America to Asia, and from traditional societies to modern urban populations, marks this study as unprecedented in its scale and ambition. Through a rigorous experimental procedure, wherein participants were asked to replicate and refine a series of beats, the researchers were able to map out the implicit rhythmic biases, or priors, that individuals brought to the task.

Preferences for different rhythmic structures

Despite the universal inclination towards simple rhythmic ratios, the study revealed considerable cross-cultural variation in the specific ratios preferred. For example, while North American and Western European participants exhibited biases that align closely with those commonly found in Western music, groups from Turkey, Mali, Bulgaria, and Botswana showed preferences for different rhythmic structures. 

This variation emphasizes the influence of cultural context on musical perception and underscores the complexity of mapping the global landscape of rhythm cognition.

Capturing human musical diversity 

The research team’s global approach also highlights a critical methodological insight for the field of music cognition: the importance of diversifying the populations studied. 

“What’s very clear from the paper is that if you just look at the results from undergraduate students around the world, you vastly underestimate the diversity that you see otherwise,” said Jacoby. This realization underscores the necessity of conducting research within a broad range of communities to capture the full extent of human musical diversity.

Broader implications 

In conclusion, this landmark study not only elucidates the universal aspects of rhythm perception but also opens up avenues for further exploration into the cultural nuances that define our musical experiences. 

As the researchers plan to extend their investigation into other aspects of music cognition, the insights gained from this study serve as a foundation for understanding the intricate interplay between our cognitive biases and the cultural contexts in which they manifest. 

McDermott’s emphasis on the need for global, community-based research approaches reinforces the importance of inclusivity and diversity in uncovering the richness of human music perception and cognition.

The study is published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.


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