I’ve got rhythm …. don’t I?

Ever been reading a paper and thought – gee I wish I could just click a button to experience what that’s like? It’s not always easy to imagine from the nitty gritty details of a methods section, just what it would be like to experience. Particularly just what strategies you might engage to be able to do a task. The response I got from twitter seems to suggest we’d all appreciate a “Sample” button on the papers we read.

The idea is not a new one. I was fortunate to work with the team at Signal to Noise Magazine on an article that they illustrated and animated beautifully.

But this thought came to me again as I’ve been reading through a series of great papers that make up Fiona Manning‘s PhD work. She used a straight forward rhythm task in a number of clever experiments to investigate rhythm production, and as a by-product rhythm imagery (though this was not the focus of her work).

Her results were cool. But it was when I mocked up the trials and tried it out for myself that I was even more amazed….

Here is a schematic of how the trials work (taken from Manning & Schutz, 2016):


If you want to give it a go yourself click here to listen to 3 example trials (note: I may or may not have labelled them correctly, just to be sneaky). These examples have been mocked up just with sinewave tones. The actual task uses woodblock, but you get the general idea.

Try listening under these three conditions and judge which one has the probe that is in time:

  1. Imagery – this is essentially the non-movement condition. So during the timekeeping bar imagine the beats but do not move at all.
  2. Tapping – use your right index finger and tap along through the synchronization and timekeeping phase.
  3. Rock out – ok so that’s not the formal name of this condition, but as you listen pretend you are holding a drum stick and use your whole arm from elbow upwards to drum the beats through the synchronization and timekeeping phase.

How did you go? Can you tell which of the three has the correct probe?

Before I tell you the answer, let me tell you about some results of Percussionists and Non-percussionists performing this task.

Animal was always my favourite muppet

Combining results from 2 recent papers (2016 & 2017) they found:

  • Percussionists were better than Non-percussionists in identifying timing of probe when drumming with a stick (aka Rock Out condition). The drumming particularly helped the percussionists to be more accurate in identifying the incorrect probes (those that were late by just 75ms or 150ms!).
  • Percussionists are still better than Non-percussionists when they were just finger tapping the beats (aka Tapping condition); but the difference between the groups is much smaller. Also the non-percussionists who were accurate at tapping in time to the beat were better at the task.
  • The part I found most fascinating is that there was NO difference between the groups in the no-movement (aka Imagery condition). In fact, both groups find the task very hard. While exact percent correct is not provided,  seems the mean overall accuracy on these Imagery trials is between 58 – 65%.

So what does all this mean?

These studies show that motor synchronization leads to improvements in perception. Rocking out is engaging more of your motor system and hence leads to greater improvements in perception. But also, percussionists have more experience using a drum stick. This may be why performance was so much better, but these motor synchronization skills did not transfer as well to the finger tapping, where they only did a little better than non-percussionists.

It also means that we are not really any closer to understanding what makes someone good at imagining rhythms. But that was never the intention of the paper, just the lens through which I was trying to read it as I grapple with this question.

Now if you have read this far and are disappointed that this blog didn’t feature any crazy drum solos, then you can always check out this one.

In the meantime, I think I’m going to try adding sample trials to all my #3MinutePaper blogs from now on. What do you think?

*The files are all named as per the condition – I’m not that tricky. So Manning_0 is the correct probe.

Update: I’ve since heard from Fiona Manning and they did include a sample trial on the lab website for the initial version of the task used in their 2003 paper. This paper brilliantly tests if moving is better than not moving (it is), and whether the benefit comes from the movement at the probe or moving during the silence. They found it was the moving during the silence that made all the difference. It is an excellent example of clear hypothesis driven research – can easily draw a flow chart of questions, and possible answers, that then lead to more questions. The sample trial is slightly faster than the version used in the more recent papers, but uses woodblock timbre. Check it out!

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