Ensemble Synchronisation in West African Percussion Music

Music and dance are prime examples of the human disposition for intersubjective rhythmic coordination (entrainment). Entrainment enhances the constitution of sociality (cooperation, group cohesion) and the experience of pleasure in contexts far beyond artistic expression: from communal work framed as celebration in peasant societies to ritual to military drill.
Empirical research in music ensemble synchronisation has thus far focused on European art music; our project studies jembe drumming from Mali, as well as African-diasporic forms of percussion ensemble and rhythm section. In a first phase, we analyse ensemble timings in corpora of audio recordings performed live in studio contexts. We measure the extent, patterns and variabilities of asynchronies between sounding event onsets that different players place in the same metric position, and we model the microrhythmic adaptation processes (phase correction) that allow ensemble entrainment in the face of both natural and intentional timing fluctuations. In particular, we probe the hypothesis of largely role-based behaviour, as for instance in the adaptive relationship between accompaniment and lead part, and we investigate different ensembles’ and individual players’ potential impact. In a second phase, we aim to understand through laboratory experiments the role that synchrony or asynchronies play in the aesthetic evaluation of ensemble rhythm, and the extent to which diverse musical styles and audiences vary in this respect.

Research partners: Hans Neuhoff (Cologne), Luis Jure and Martín Rocamora (Montevideo), and Kelly Jakubowski, Martin Clayton and Tuomas Eerola of the AHRC project Interpersonal Entrainment in Music Performance (Durham)


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