Why North America is not a rhythm nation

I got music.
I got my guy,
Who could ask for anything more?
George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin

North American adults have problems perceiving and reproducing irregular rhythms. That's what past studies have shown, and some new research has addressed the question of whether our seeming inability to dance to a different tune should be chalked up to nature or culture. New findings point to a harmonious blend of both.

Music has a communal quality in virtually all cultures, inspiring dancing, clapping, instrument playing, marching, and chanting. Despite what seems to be a universal to coordinate movement, listeners are frequently challenged by the rhythmic patterns of other cultures. North American adults, for example, have difficulty perceiving rhythmic patterns in Balkan music.

Erin E. Hannon, Cornell University, and Sandra Trehub, University of Toronto, found that Bulgarian and Macedonian adults process complex musical rhythms better than North American adults, who often struggle with anything other than simple western meter. To gauge the significance of culture influences our ability to process musical patterns, the researchers also conducted experiments with North American infants and found that they too were better than North American adults.

It suggests that infants are capable of understanding complex rhythms but might lose that ability in a culture - like ours - that embraces a simple musical structure. The researchers also concluded that infants are more flexible than adults when it comes to categorizing different types of rhythms, but can lose this ability if they are exposed to only one type of rhythm when they are growing up. (Similar conclusions have been made about how people learn languages: Infants are more flexible in processing different word sounds and speech patterns from a variety of speakers, but it isn't long before they settle on those that are most common and meaningful to their culture.)


Contact: Erin Hannon
Association for Psychological Science

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