Rhythm Arises from Random Beats in a “Telephone” Game

An experiment in which people pass each other initially nonrhythmic drumming sequences reveals the human affinity for musical patterns.

Diana Kwon
Diana Kwon

Diana is a freelance science journalist who covers the life sciences, health, and academic life.

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Mar 1, 2017

BEAT IT: In a lab experiment based on the “telephone” game, rhythm evolved from random tempos. © ISTOCK.COM/GOLUBOVY

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The paper
A. Ravignani et al., “Musical evolution in the lab exhibits rhythmic universals,” Nat Hum Behav, 1:0007, 2016.

Musical universals
Although Beethoven’s orchestral symphonies may contrast with the synthetic sounds of today’s electronic beats, music from different genres has a lot in common. In 2015, a group led by Patrick Savage of Tokyo University of the Arts found 18 musical features that consistently appeared across geographical regions.

“Broken telephone”
Six of the features were related to rhythm, and Andrea Ravignani, a postdoctoral researcher at Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, and his colleagues decided to see whether these would spontaneously emerge in the lab. They gathered 48 non-musicians to play a modified version of the “telephone” game. In groups of eight, the subjects each sequentially played...

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