Evolving building blocks of rhythm: How human cognition creates music via cultural transmission

Andrea Ravignani, Bill Thompson, Thomas Grossi, Tania Delgado, Simon Kirby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Why does musical rhythm have the structure it does? Musical rhythm, in all its cross-cultural diversity, exhibits commonalities across world cultures. Traditionally, music research has been split into two fields. Some scientists focused on musicality, namely the human biocognitive predispositions for music, with an emphasis on cross-cultural similarities. Other scholars investigated music, seen as a cultural product, focusing on the variation in world musical cultures. Recent experiments found deep connections between music and musicality, reconciling these opposing views. Here, we address the question of how individual cognitive biases affect the process of cultural evolution of music. Data from two experiments are analyzed using two complementary techniques. In the experiments, participants hear drumming patterns and imitate them. These patterns are then given to the same or another participant to imitate. The structure of these initially random patterns is tracked along experimental "generations." Frequentist statistics show how participants' biases are amplified by cultural transmission, making drumming patterns more structured. Structure is achieved faster in transmission within rather than between participants. A Bayesian model approximates the motif structures participants learned and created. Our data and models suggest that individual biases for musicality may shape the cultural transmission of musical rhythm.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)176-187
JournalAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
Issue number1
Early online date6 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2018

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • evolution of music
  • rhythm
  • timing
  • cultural transmission
  • biomusicology
  • Bayesian model


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