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Are rhythmic preferences shared across cultures?

New research led by Dr Kelly Jakubowski suggests that preferences for synchrony in groove-based music may be universal, whereas preferences for isochrony are more culturally dependent.

It is often claimed that deviations from perfect synchrony between instruments and deviations from perfect isochrony (equal spacing) between subsequent notes can increase the aesthetic appeal of music, making it sound more “human” and less mechanical. However, such claims have gained little empirical support in previous research on groove-based music (e.g., jazz, funk).

Dr Jakubowski and colleagues from the University of Oslo, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, and Universidad de la República have investigated this topic cross-culturally for the first time. Specifically, they examined the effects of deviations from synchrony and isochrony in 3 groove-based music styles (Western jazz, Uruguayan candombe, Malian jembe) on preference ratings of musicians and non-musicians in the UK, Uruguay, and Mali.

Deviations from synchrony did not increase preference ratings in any style, but deviations from isochrony that were representative of a typical performance increased preferences in the non-Western (Malian and Uruguayan) musicians for their own music. This suggests (some aspects of) rhythmic timing variations influence preferences for groove-based music, but these are mediated by cultural familiarity and/or musical expertise.

The lack of significant results in previous studies may be due to the focus on Western participants, as this new study similarly showed that UK musicians did not prefer performance-based deviations from isochrony, in contrast to the Uruguayan and Malian musicians.

This research was funded by the AHRC Interpersonal Entrainment in Music Performance project (PI: Prof Martin Clayton).

The article is published in Cognition and freely available here: