Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

The beat goes on

I am blessed with a good innate sense of rhythm.

I've always felt rhythms in my body; I never had to struggle to keep the beat while playing music.  One of my band members nicknamed me "The Metronome," and quipped that if one of us missed a note, it might well be me -- but if someone screwed up the rhythm, it was definitely not me.

I've often wondered about the origin of this.  I've listened to music ever since I can remember, but I dropped out of band in sixth grade, was not allowed to take music lessons however much I begged my parents, and didn't participate in anything in the way of formal music training until I was in my mid-twenties.  The result is that I'm largely self-taught -- with all of the good and bad that kind of background brings.

I've always loved music with odd rhythms.  There's a reason two of my favorite classical composers are Igor Stravinsky and Dmitri Shostakovich.  Then, I discovered Balkan music when I was in my teens, and even before I knew cognitively what was going on, was magnetically attracted to the strange, asymmetrical beat patterns.

For example, what do you make of this tune?

If you know any Slavic languages, the name of it will give you a clue -- Dvajspetorka.  There are twenty-five beats (!) per measure; the name comes from the Macedonian word for "twenty-five" (dvaeset i pet).  But if you're wondering how the hell you count that, you'll no doubt be relieved to find that you don't count up to twenty-five and then start back at one.  Most of these Balkan tunes are dances (or derived from them), and they're all broken down into slow steps (that get a count of three beats) and fast steps (that get a count of two beats).  This one is slow-fast-fast, slow-fast-fast, fast-fast-slow-fast-fast.  When I've taught Balkan music workshops, I've found it helps to speak the rhythm, using the word "apple" for the fast, two-beat steps and "cinnamon" for the slow, three-beat ones.

So the rhythm of Dvajspetorka would be cinnamon-apple-apple, cinnamon-apple-apple, apple-apple-cinnamon-apple-apple.

Which, if you count it up, adds to an entire apple pie with twenty-five beats per measure.

What got me thinking about all of this is a couple of papers I ran into yesterday, one from PLOS-One Biology called, "The Nature and Perception of Fluctuations in Human Musical Rhythms," by Holger Henning et al., and the other from Psychonomic Bulletin and Review called, "Sensorimotor Synchronization: A Review of Recent Research" by Bruno Repp and Yi-Huang Su.  And what I learned from these is as fascinating as it is puzzling.  Among the takeaways:
  • Humans tend not to like perfectly steady rhythms.  When musical recordings are made using a computer-synchronized beat, they're judged as "emotionless" and "devoid of depth."  So small, deliberate fluctuations in the tempo are part of what give music its poignancy.
  • Throwing in random fluctuations doesn't work.  Test subjects caught on to that immediately, saying the alterations in tempo sounded like mistakes.  There's something about the fluid, organic sound of actual human musicians making minor shifts in rhythm that are what create emotional resonance in the listener.
  • That said, really good musicians have extraordinarily accurate abilities to keep a steady beat when they want to.  Told to hold a rhythm as rock-solid as they can, professional percussionists deviated from the pulse of the music by an average of only a few milliseconds per beat.
  • fMRI studies have shown that there is a specific part of the brain -- the basal ganglia-thalamo-cortical circuitry in the cerebellum -- that fires like crazy when people try to match a rhythm.  So the rhythmic ability in humans is hardwired.  In fact, research suggests that are are other animals that have this ability as well -- other primates, rats, and some birds all show various levels of rhythmic awareness.
  • As far as why this apparently innate ability to keep a musical rhythm exists, evolutionary biologists admit that their current answer is "damned if we know."
It seems like an odd thing to evolve, doesn't it?  The obvious guess is that it might have something to do with communication, but there's no human language (or non-human animal communication we know of) that is sensitive to rhythm to an accuracy of a few milliseconds.  If I say "I'm leaving for work now" to my wife, and say it with various rhythms and speeds, the meaning doesn't change (although for certain speed and rhythm combinations, she might well give me a perplexed look).

So how such an incredibly precise ability evolved is still a considerable mystery.

Anyhow, that's our curious bit of science for the day.  How humans keep the beat.  And if you'd like to end with another challenge, what time signature do you think this is in?  Have fun!


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