Last week quite a few people participated in an informal listening test on rhythm. It gratefully used some of the stimuli from a study by Hannon and Trehub (H&T).*
H&T studied the sensitivity of listeners to detect violations of rhythmic structure in simple meters (i.e. duple and triple meter; such as a march or waltz) and more complex meters (i.e. compound meter, such as 5/8 and 7/8, common to, e.g., Balkan music).
N.B. Last week’s fragment 1 was an example of a stimulus in a simple meter, fragment 2 was one in a complex meter (see earlier blog).
H&Ts study showed that North American participants judged the structure-violating music examples (e.g., the A-fragments in last weeks blog) as less similar to the original version than the structure-preserving ones (e.g., the B-fragments), but only so for the examples is simple meter (Fragment 1 in the earlier blog).
In a second experiment they showed that participants of Bulgarian or Macedonian origin could spot the rhythmic violations in both complex and simple-meter contexts. Arguably, because complex meters are more common in Balkan music. As such this is evidence for an effect of exposure or enculturation on rhythmic sensitivity. (Interestingly, the readers who did the test last week, performed quite similar to the Bulgarian participant group; But note: we did not replicate the study last week, it was just a demonstration).
An additional surprise of the H&T study was that 6-month-old infants (from North American origin), when exposed to the same stimuli, did as well in both metrical contexts: so very much like the Bulgarian adults. This is support for the idea that a sensitivity for rhythm and meter is actually active at an early age, and hinting that the North American participants lost some of these capabilities, instead of Balkan participants learning them. Of course, further research is needed to substantiate this, but the study is intriguing on its own.
Hannon, E.E., Trehub, S.E. (2005). Metrical Categories in Infancy and Adulthood. Psychological Science, 16(1), 48-55. DOI: 10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.00779.x