As humans, there are certainly groups of people we view as more rhythmic than others. Drummers are a great example of this. I am always so in awe of the ability of a drummer to create beautiful rhythms that sound like a symphony (if you don’t believe me spend some time on YouTube checking out some djembe solos)! So when my dear friend Lisa asked me, “Why can some people naturally hold a beat while others can’t if you paid them?” it got me thinking that since Lisa is a scientist, this seems to be the perfect platform to address her question.   

To begin, we need to identify what is meant by the word “beat.” Depending on who is using the word it can mean several different things. Among those things are tempo, rhythm, and meter. For anyone not trained in music, I’m going to quickly define these terms.  

·       Tempo is the speed at which a song is being played and is measured in beats per minute. The tempo can be kept by a metronome, conductor, drummer, etc.

·       Rhythm determines the length of the notes. Think about the piano intro from the song “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey: Dummmm da da dummmm da da dummmm da da dummmm da da dummmm

·       Meter refers to how the song is divided up into mathematical groupings and thus how the musician will perform the music. For instance, if we eliminate rhythm and utilize a song that has the same rhythmic values for each note, you will still be able to feel the meter due to the musician making slight emphasis on the first beat of each measure vs. this performance on an ancient Chinese instrument which is historically notated to flow along without a defined meter.

So what is it that determines the difference between you and your neighbor’s interpretation of the beat? Well one problem is that it could be any three of these things! A trained musician may be better able to stay in tempo due to hours of training, or you just may be interpreting the meter in a completely different way. Daniel Levitin identifies in This Is Your Brain On Music, it can be due to anything from differences in musical background to the neural processing mechanisms that vary from person to person (p.59).

With tempo there are some pretty interesting conclusions that have been drawn due to research. In fact, Levitin mentions a 1996 study he did with Perry Cook in which they were able to show that a majority of non-musician study participants were able to recall songs within 4% of the original tempo (p.61).  This suggests that our brains are excellent timekeepers. As beings that rely on accurate tempos being kept in our bodies (heart rate, respirations, gait, etc.) it makes sense that we would have a pretty great grasp on tempo recollection. The indication here is that the cerebellum, being the section of brain in charge of our body tempos, may also process musical tempos.  Levitin surmises that the basal ganglia are probably involved as well (p. 61). As far as the neural processing of rhythm and meter- they are definitely not related on a neural level. “Patients with damage to the left hemisphere can lose the ability to perceive and produce rhythm, but they can still extract meter, and patients with damage to the right hemisphere have shown the opposite pattern,” (Levitin, p.173).

One of the most exciting studies out there is a 2008 study by Winkler et al. that measured neonate electrical brain responses. This study provides evidence that newborn infants are able to identify a disruption in meter. We are born with this ability! So cool!

All of this is my long way of saying to Lisa that this is a complex multi-variable problem and with improved monitoring technology the exact answer is imminent.  The research tells us that the majority of people out there are processing beat quite efficiently- even if we’ve all seen Aunt Bertha out on the dance floor last year at our cousin’s wedding and we disagree whole-heartedly that her processing is similar to ours. My bet is that if we measured the beat that Aunt Bertha was dancing to, it would be darn close to the beat of the song playing- she just might be representing that beat a moment to soon or a moment late.

Beat perception is a huge component of why Neurologic Music Therapy is effective. The perception of a beat from one person to another may be totally different, but we see time and time again that the outcome is similar. The anticipation of the upcoming beat is so powerful that it convinces our body to do a number of things. This is touched on in the previous three blog posts, if you are interested to learn more about it.

As a takeaway, Patel notes in Music, Language, and the Brain that humans have a preferential tempo range for beat perception, which is 500-700 ms. So if you’re trying to help Aunt Bertha out, then you can always ask the DJ to try something closer to her “preferred range.“

Levitin, D.J. (2007). This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession. New York: Penguin Group.

Patel, A.D. (2010). Music, Language, and the Brain. New York: Oxford University Press.

Winkler, I., Háden, G.P., Ladinig, O., Sziller, I., & Honing, H. (2008). Newborn infants detect the beat in music. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(7): 2668-2471. www.pnas.org_cgi_doi_10.1073_pnas.0809035106

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