Dr. Rainer Polak

Research Focus

I study the role of social and cultural contexts in the performance and perception of temporal aspects of music: timing, rhythm, meter and intersubjective entrainment. This interest has led me from social/cultural anthropology and African studies into ethnomusicology, prompted music-theoretical questions, and called into play methods from systematic/empirical musicology and psychology of music. I specialise in West-African drumming and assume both culturally specific and cross-culturally comparative perspectives.

Personal website: www.rainerpolak.de


Academic Education

2002Doctor of Philosophy at Bayreuth University with a thesis in social anthropology and ethnomusicology on professional drumming  in urban West Africa (Bamako, Mali)
1996-1999Post-graduate programme “Cross-Cultural Relationships in Africa,” Bayreuth University
1989-1996  Magister Artium at Bayreuth University in Social/Cultural Anthropology, African Linguistics and History of Africa


Seit 2017Postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Music Department
2011-2016Lead researcher on a DFG-funded grant at Cologne University for Music and Dance
2004-2011Freelance teacher of West African percussion
2006-2007DFG-funded research fellow at the Institute for African Studies, Bayreuth University
2003Research associate at the Institute for African Studies, Bayreuth University



Polak, R. (2004). Festmusik als Arbeit, Trommeln als Beruf. Jenbe-Spieler in einer westafrikanischen Großstadt. Berlin: Reimer.

Journal Articles, Book Sections, and Encyclopedia Entries (Selection)

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. (2017). The lower limit for meter in dance drumming from West Africa. Empirical Musicology Review, 12(3-4), 205–226.

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

London, J., Polak, R., & Jacoby, N. (2017). Rhythm histograms and musical meter: A corpus study of Malian percussion music. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 24(2), 474–480. DOI: 10.3758/s13423-016-1093-7

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).

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. (2015). Pattern and Variation in the Timing of Aksak Meter: Commentary on Goldberg. Empirical Musicology Review 10(4). DOI: 10.18061/emr.v10i4.4883

Polak, R. & London, J. (2014) Timing and Meter in Mande drumming from Mali.  Music Theory Online 20(1).

Polak, R. (2014). Bala; Bara; Bàtá; Bendre; Bonkolo; Dùndún; Dunun; Jembe; Sabar; Tama. New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Polak, R. (2012). Urban Drumming: Traditional Celebration Music in a West African City (Bamako). In E. S. Charry (Ed.), African expressive cultures. Hip hop Africa. New African music in a globalizing world (pp. 261–281). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Polak, R. (2010). Rhythmic Feel as Meter: Non-Isochronous Beat Subdivision in Jembe Music from Mali. Music Theory Online, 16(4).

Polak, R. (2007). Performing audience: On the social constitution of focused interaction at celebrations in Mali. Anthropos 102(1), 3–18.

Polak, R. (2006). Drumming for money and respect : the commercialization of traditional celebration music in Bamako. In S. R. Wooten (Ed.), Mande worlds: Wari matters. Ethnographic explorations of money in the Mande world (pp. 135–161). Munich, London: LIT.

Polak, R. (2000). A Musical Instrument Travels Around the World: Jenbe Playing in Bamako, West Africa, and Beyond. The World of Music, 42(3), 7–46.    Reprint (2006) in J. Post (ed.), Ethnomusicology: A Contemporary Reader (pp. 161–185), NY: Routledge Press. Second reprint (2012) in M. P. Baumann (ed.), The World of Music: Readings in Ethnomusicology (pp. 124–170), Berlin: VWB Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung.



Awards & Grants

Awards and Grants

2003-2004Association for African Studies in Germany (VAD): Best PhD thesis
1996-1999German Research Foundation (DFG): PhD bursary 
2006-2007 German Research Foundation (DFG): research fellowship
2011-2016German Research Foundation (DFG): research grant



  • Cultural Variation in rhythmic prototypes

    While the timing of musical events varies infinitely by physical standards, humans perceive but a small number of rhythmic and metric categories. These building blocks of rhythmic and metric structure are commonly presumed to be tied to ...

  • 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 ...

  • Aesthetic evaluation of metric timing patterns in cross-cultural perspective

    Empirical research in non-isochronous (durationally uneven) beat subdivision is currently limited largely to Euro-American musical styles, such as jazz (swing-eighths), French baroque (notes inégales), Viennese waltz and Scandinavian fiddling for ...