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.

Mar 1, 2017
Diana Kwon

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


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 their best imitation of a randomly generated drumming sequence. By the time the musical message made its way to the end, it had transformed into a predictable pattern. “We could see that [the rhythms] became more regular, more structured, more organized, easier to imitate, and converged toward all these six rhythmic universals found in world music,” Ravignani says.

Cross-culture convergence
“I think this is an elegant study in its design, [which] enables a very strong demonstration of these preferences that the brain has,” says Guy Madison of Umeå University in Sweden who was not involved in the study.

Innate biases
Ravignani believes that these stereotypical patterns may arise because of biological constraints such as limited working-memory capacity, though this has to be investigated further. He hopes to take this experiment around the world to see whether these universals emerge in other cultures, particularly in places like the Balkans, where traditional music is based on much more complex rhythmic patterns.