Tapping the Difference

The psychology of rhythm perception is traditionally based on the assumption of universal, biologically anchored structures of perception. However, previous studies have mostly been limited to Western Europe and North America. For the first time, an interdisciplinary group of researchers led by ethnomusicologist Rainer Polak has now examined some of these findings for possible cultural differences. To this end, they conducted so-called “tapping” studies with four different groups of professional musicians: Two classically trained groups in Germany and Bulgaria plus two groups specialising in folk dance music in Bulgaria and Mali. In each of these groups, the participants had to hear different rhythms and were supposed to tap along with synchronously.

The result was that not all groups behaved the same way. On the contrary, all groups showed difficulties in perceiving rhythms that do not play a major role in their own musical culture. For example, excellently trained classical percussionists proved surprisingly disoriented when engaging with a simple ”swing“ rhythm, which is common in dance music from Mali. By contrast, the West Africans performed outstandingly well on this rhythm they knew from their own cultural-specific musical practice. However, contradicting a widespread cultural stereotype they did not generally show a more precise sense of rhythm than the other groups.

“The perception of musical rhythms thus depends not only on their complexity and the listeners’ musical expertise, but also on their cultural familiarity with the particular rhythms”, says Dr. Polak “The study demonstrates that people do not necessarily have the same perception when they are exposed to the same stimulus. Such differences occur not only between individuals, but also between culturally different social groups.“

The researchers conclude that structures of perception are acquired primarily informally and through so-called “implicit learning” in social environment – a phenomenon well known from studies of young children’s language acquisition. People thus are not simply born with their capacity for musical rhythm perception.

Original publication:

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

Contact Publication:

Dr. Rainer Polak