Dr. Rainer Polak

Research Focus

  • Music and dance from Mali;
  • Cultural variation in rhythm perception;
  • Multimodality in rhythm performance and perception;
  • Performance and audiency beyond the concert hall.

Personal Website

Personal Profile at University of Oslo 


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


2023Benedict Distinguished Visiting Professor of Music (spring term), Carleton College, Minnesota, USA
Since 2022

Researcher at  RITMO Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Rhythm, Time and Motion, University of Oslo

Visiting Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Department of Music

2017–2022Postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics,  Department of Music
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)

Jakubowski, K., Polak, R., Rocamora, M., Jure, L., & Jacoby, N. (2022). Aesthetics of musical timing: Culture and expertise affect preferences for isochrony but not synchrony. Cognition, 227, 105205. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2022.105205

Polak, R., & London, J. (2022). Tempo, meter, and form: An analysis of “Dansa” from Mali. In L. Shuster, S. Mukherji, & N. Dinnerstein (Eds.), Trends in Word Music Analysis (pp. 143–158). Routledge

Polak, R. (2022). Non-isochronous Metre in Music from Mali. In M. Doffman, E. Payne, & T. Young (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Time in Music (pp. 252–274). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190947279.013.22

Clayton , M., Tarsitani, S., Jankowsky, R., Jure, L., Leante, L., Polak, R., Poole, A., Rocamora, M., Alborno, P., Camurri, A., Eerola, T., Jacoby, N., & Jakubowski, K. (2021). The Interpersonal Entrainment in Music Performance Data Collection. Empirical Musicology Review, 16(1), 65-84. doi.org/10.18061/emr.v16i1.7555

Wald-Fuhrmann, M., Pearson, L., Roeske, T., Grüny, C., & Polak, R. (2021). Music as a trait in evolutionary theory: A musicological perspective. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,44, E93. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X20001193

Jacoby, N., Polak, R., & London, J. (2021). Extreme precision in rhythmic interaction is enabled by role-optimized sensorimotor coupling: Analysis and modelling of West African drum ensemble music. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences,376(1835). doi:10.1098/rstb.2020.0331.

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 (GMTH) : 1. bis 4. Oktober 2015 (pp. 365–379). 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). Shaker.

Jacoby, N., Margulis, E. H., Clayton, M., Hannon, E., Honing, H., Iversen, J., Klein, T. R., Mehr, S. A., Pearson, L., Peretz, I., Perlman, M., Polak, R., Ravignani, A., Savage, P. E., Steingo, G., Stevens, C. J., Trainor, L., Trehub, S., Veal, M., & Wald-Fuhrmann, M. (2020). Cross-cultural work in music cognition. Music Perception, 37 (3), 185–195. https://doi.org/10.1525/mp.2020.37.3.185

Polak, R. (2019). Jembe music. In D. Horn, J. Shepherd, G. Kielich, & H. C. Feldman (Eds.), Bloomsbury encyclopedia of popular music of the world. Volume XII: Genres: Sub-Saharan Africa (pp. 315–319). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Polak, R. (2019). Celebration. In J. Sturman (Ed.), The SAGE International Encyclopedia of Music and Culture (pp. 476–480). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

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

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 
2006–2007German Research Foundation (DFG): research fellowship
2011–2016German Research Foundation (DFG): research grant




  • 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 ...

  • Ensemble-Synchronisation

    Ensemble music and dance are prime examples of the human ability to precisely synchronize the actions performed by a group. This project investigates the process of ensemble synchronization in corpora of digital recordings of various forms of ...

  • Timing patterns: What rhythmic nuances are aesthetically relevant in particular musical cultures

    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. While musicologists attach great ...

  • 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 ...