Rhythm across cultures

This project investigates the perception and performance of musical rhythm in different cultures. It compares them in terms of their degree of cross-cultural similarity or diversity and thus will enhance an empirically founded discussion of anthropological universals and cultural diversity. The subprojects apply empirical methods such as digital corpus analyses and psychological experiments in contrasting cultural and social contexts. In order to obtain the most meaningful and reliable data possible in terms of cultural comparison, the data are mainly collected in field research situations, for example with local populations in Mali, Bulgaria, Bolivia, and Uruguay. The interdisciplinary project is co-directed by Rainer Polak and Nori Jacoby; the collaborative team of researchers disposes of skills in computational musicology, music psychology and auditory cognition as well as music theory and ethnomusicology.

External Research Partners

Prof. Dr. Justin London (Carleton College, USA)

Dr. Kelly Jakubowski (Durham University, UK)

Dr. Martín Rocamora (Universidad de la República, Uruguay)

Dr. André Holzapfel (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Schweden)


Project Sections

Categorical rhythm perception

The perception of rhythmic figures relies upon the mechanism of categorical perception: the tendency for the human perceptual system to perceive the infinite variety of rhythmic nuances with reference to a small number of prototypical rhythmic patterns that serve as reference structures




Ensemble music and dance are prime examples of the human ability to precisely synchronize the actions performed by a group



Microtiming patterns

This subproject investigates the perception and aesthetic evaluation of patterns of microtiming—subtle lengthening or shortening of particular notes—that is inherent in the performance of musical rhythms.



Polak, R. (2021). Presenting yourself through dance: Participatory and presentational aspects of dance performance at local festivities in southern Mali. In V. Apjok, K. Povedák, V. Szőnyi, & S. Varga (Eds.), Dance, Age and Politics: Proceedings of the 30th Symposium of the ICTM Study Group on Ethnochoreology (pp. 67-82). University of Szeged.

Polak, R. (2020). Non-isochronous meter is not irregular: A review of theory and evidence. In M. Aydintan, F. Edler, R. Graybill, & L. Krämer (Eds.), Gegliederte Zeit: 15. Jahreskongress der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie Berlin 2015  (pp. 365-379). Hildesheim: Georg Olms.

Polak, R. (2020). Wozu polychrone Pulsation? Funktionalistische Perspektiven auf metrische Strukturen in malischer Musik. In M. Sharif, & K. Stepputat (Eds.), Understanding musics: Festschrift on the occasion of Gerd Grupe's 65th birthday  (pp. 19-36). Düren: Shaker.


Omigie, D., Frieler, K., Bär, C., Muralikrishnan, R., Wald-Fuhrmann, M., & Fischinger, T. (2019). Experiencing musical beauty: Emotional subtypes and their physiological and musico-acoustic correlates. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. doi:10.1037/aca0000271.

Polak, R., Jacoby, N., Fischinger, T., Goldberg, D., Holzapfel, A., & London, J. (2018). Rhythmic Prototypes Across Cultures: A Comparative Study of Tapping Synchronization. Music Perception, 36(1), 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1525/mp.2018.36.1.1

Polak, R., Tarsitani, S., & Clayton, M. (2018). IEMP Malian Jembe. A collection of audiovisual recordings of Malian jembe ensemble performances, with detailed annotations. Open Science Framework (OSF). doi: 10.17605/OSF.IO/M652X

Jacoby, Nori und Josh H. McDermott. 2017. Integer Ratio Priors on Musical Rhythm Revealed Cross-Culturally by Iterated Reproduction. Current Biology 27(3): 359–70. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.12.031.

Neuhoff, H., Polak, R., & Fischinger, T. (2017). Perception and Evaluation of Timing Patterns in Drum Ensemble Music from Mali. Music Perception, 34(4), 438–451. doi: 10.1525/mp.2017.34.4.438

Polak, R., Jacoby, N., & London, J. (2016). Both isochronous and non-isochronous metrical subdivision afford precise and stable ensemble entrainment: A corpus study of Malian jembe drumming. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 10, 285. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2016.00285

Polak, R., Jacoby, N., & London, J. (2016). Kulturelle Diversität in der empirischen Rhythmusforschung: Drei Analysen eines Audio-Korpus von Percussion-Ensemblemusik aus Mali. Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie, 13 (2).