Pulse and music culture

Although our ability to entrain to an external rhythm might be innate, the perception of an underlying reference structure in music—for example, the underlying pulse—is also highly dependent on the music culture. Our perception is determined by our previous experience, and by repeated regularities in our environment.

Music culture can be defined as what arises when multiple people share a repertoire of musical concepts and practices (Baily 1985, Blacking 1995). For example, did Hannon and Trehub (2005) find culture-specific musical biases between adults from Bulgaria and Macedonia (who are exposed to music with a non-isochronous pulse) and adults from North America (who are mainly exposed to music with an isochronous pulse). This suggests that pulse perception also depends on one’s familiarity with the specific music culture.

Sometimes the underlying reference structures such as the pulse are not necessarily represented by the actual sonic events. For example, in the beginning of “Stir It Up” by Bob Marley, the guitar riff is played between the pulse beats. However, a perceiver familiar with reggae would immediately recognize the underlying pulse despite (or because of) the off-beat guitar riff. In other words, the underlying reference structure is sometimes indicated by style-specific recurring rhythmic patterns that do not follow the underlying pulse.

So how can the underlying pulse be identified if it is not present in the sounding music? As previously mentioned, the pulse level in music is often externalized through body motions. Agawu (2003) describes how the underlying reference structure in many West and Central African dances is indicated by typical rhythms that do not follow the underlying pulse, which is only visible in the corresponding dance (Agawu 2003:73). In a study of Brazilian drum patterns, Kubik (1990) explains that, since the percussionists’ “inner pulsation” was often not present in the sound, one had to find it in the body motion of the musicians and dancers.

In music styles like traditional Scandinavian folk dance the cue is not in a specific sonic rhythm but in a more complex implied pattern. Blom (2006) points out that the underlying pulse in certain traditional Scandinavian dance music genres consists of non-isochronous sequences, and that this underlying structure should be understood in relation to the dancers’ vertical motion of their center of gravity and the musicians’ foot stamping. Here is an example of Norwegian telespringar.

We have seen that in some music styles, the underlying pulse does not coincide with sonic events, but is derived from a rhythm pattern typical for the style of music. In other styles of music, like some Scandinavian dance music genres, the cue is not in a specific sonic rhythm but in a more complex pattern. Either way, however, we find the same mechanisms of cultural learning.


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Music Moves: Why Does Music Make You Move?

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