Perception of Rhythmic Similarity is Asymmetrical, and Is Influenced by Musical Training, Expressive Performance, and Musical Context

in Timing & Time Perception
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Rhythm is an essential part of the structure, behaviour, and aesthetics of music. However, the cognitive processing that underlies the perception of musical rhythm is not fully understood. In this study, we tested whether rhythm perception is influenced by three factors: musical training, the presence of expressive performance cues in human-performed music, and the broader musical context. We compared musicians and nonmusicians’ similarity ratings for pairs of rhythms taken from Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. The rhythms were heard both in isolation and in musical context and both with and without expressive performance cues. The results revealed that rhythm perception is influenced by the experimental conditions: rhythms heard in musical context were rated as less similar than those heard in isolation; musicians’ ratings were unaffected by expressive performance, but nonmusicians rated expressively performed rhythms as less similar than those with exact timing; and expressively-performed rhythms were rated as less similar compared to rhythms with exact timing when heard in isolation but not when heard in musical context. The results also showed asymmetrical perception: the order in which two rhythms were heard influenced their perceived similarity. Analyses suggest that this asymmetry was driven by the internal coherence of rhythms, as measured by normalized Pairwise Variability Index (nPVI). As predicted, rhythms were perceived as less similar when the first rhythm in a pair had greater coherence (lower nPVI) than the second rhythm, compared to when the rhythms were heard in the opposite order.

Perception of Rhythmic Similarity is Asymmetrical, and Is Influenced by Musical Training, Expressive Performance, and Musical Context

in Timing & Time Perception



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    The twelve stimulus rhythms, taken from Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. Lines indicate claps and dots indicate rests. For all twelve rhythms, A indicates the rhythm clapped by performer 1, and B indicates the rhythm clapped by performer 2. ‘Result’ indicates the overall rhythm resulting from the combination of the two performer’s clapped rhythms. Intensity and timbral variation are not displayed, however, it is clear when both performers are to be clapping simultaneously, and when only one performer claps.

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    Mean similarity ratings of musicians and nonmusicians for rhythm pairs presented in isolation and in their musical context. Error bars indicate +/− 1 SEM. * indicates p < 0.05. ** indicates p < 0.01.

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    Correlations between mean similarity ratings for rhythm pairs and: A) absolute nPVI differences between rhythm pairs; B) directional nPVI differences (2nd rhythm minus 1st rhythm).

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    Mean similarity ratings of musicians and nonmusicians for trials in which the first rhythm had higher nPVI than the second. Error bars indicate +/− 1 SEM.


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