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We all have a rhythm, MIT says, and culture keeps the beat

Nick Adair of the Foxborough High School Jazz Ensemble rehearsed in 2013. An MIT study found that people asked to repeat random series of beats tend to reorganize them according to familiar patterns. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File

Can you keep a beat? Even if you doubt your skills, chances are there’s some musical ability stored away in your brain.

A recent study from MIT found that people who are asked to repeat random series of beats tend to reorganize them according to familiar patterns — even if they don’t know they’re doing it.

The findings, published in the Jan. 5 issue of Current Biology, could pave the way to a better understanding of the how people perceive and retain what they hear.

“We think that these biases on rhythm, they probably are really important to how you hear music,” said Josh McDermott, senior author of the study and an assistant professor of neuroscience at MIT.


Cultural differences among research subjects corresponded with vast differences in the rhythms that drew their attention. The project included experiments both in Boston and Bolivia, where people have been exposed to different kinds of music.

Researchers asked subjects to mimic a succession of beats, then played the subjects’ beats back and asked them to mimic those recordings. Over several cycles, listeners’ responses became more regular, coalescing around familiar beats.

The study described how listeners — those who were musicians and those who were not — were “biased” toward beats described as having simple integer ratios. For example, four equally spaced beats would have a ratio of 1: 1: 1 (with the series repeating after the last number).

They found that Bostonians came up with rhythms that were well-known in Western music. One common response of 1: 1: 2, with a third interval that is twice as long as the first two, mimics the first three notes of the refrain in “Jingle Bells.”

Conversely, test subjects from the Tsimane tribe in Bolivia tended to be biased toward rhythms that are less familiar to Americans.


What the groups had in common, however, was that they both gravitated toward whole-number integers over rhythms with more complex mathematical relationships between the beats and the spaces in between.

Nori Jacoby, a presidential scholar in society and neuroscience at Columbia University and lead author on the study, hopes to find out whether those kinds of rhythms are truly universal.

The former MIT post-doc plans to do more research in Mali, where music generally does not follow such ratio patterns, to see whether people gravitate toward integer ratios like those in the recent research or whether their musical experience has changed their disposition.

Eventually, Jacoby said, “We will be able to answer what are the biological determined things . . . and what are the things that are more influenced by culture.”

Andy Rosen can be reached at
Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.