If you find yourself wanting to beat it to the rhythm of the night, it’s not just because you have a proclivity for early 1980s classics. The natural impulse to enjoy and follow rhythms has long been considered a part of being human. What’s been less obvious is why the same rhythms can be found in music all over the world — and why we’re drawn to these rhythms in the first place.
In a paper published Monday in Nature Human Behavior, cognitive scientist Andrea Ravignani, Ph.D., argued that musical rhythm partially “arises from the influence of human cognitive and biological biases on the process of cultural evolution.” Noting that there are universal rhythmic features found across varying cultures, he argues that the fact that these features exist underlies the idea that we have evolved to learn and memorize the same distinctive rhythms for a reason.
Ravignani’s research was inspired by a previous paper in which ethnomusicologist Patrick Savage, Ph.D., and his team analyzed hundreds of musical recordings taped in nine regions of the world. Within these regions, they found that there are 18 commonly shared features of music.
Within these features, six were related to rhythm: a regularly spaced underlying beat, timed beats of unequal strength, groups of two beats, groups of three beats, rhythmic motifs, and beats distributed in less than five categories of musical timing.
For this new paper, Ravignani investigated whether these six universal rhythmic features would be present in drum beats if non-musicians were given the sticks. He and his team pooled together 48 non-musicians, split them into groups of eight, and had one member from each group mimic a random beat from a computer that did not follow the universal rhythmic features. Next, each of the other individuals within each group were asked to mimic the beat played by the person before them — for example, if person A mimicked the computer beat, person B would copy person A, then person C would copy B, and so on.
What they found was that by the time the final person in each group stopped playing the drums, the beat had totally morphed from the original beat provided by the computer. Instead, the beat had turned into a structured pattern that incorporated the six universal rhythmic features first identified by Savage.
Why did the participants go back to these six rhythms? Ravignani writes that “basic psychological mechanisms (working memory, perceptual primitives, categorical perception, and so on) can lead to large-scale musical universals via cultural transmission.” Sure, maybe people resorted to these beats because they learned them from the music they already listen to. But the music they listen to sounds that way because of long-lasting patterns of rhythm that have been learned over the course of many years. Researchers believe humans have displayed percussive behavior for at least a million years.
The assumption is that early humans were motivated to copy music-like sequences as a way to learn synchronization of audio-motor behaviors. By developing rhythmic abilities, ancient humans were more likely to achieve group cohesiveness, mating success, and successfully defend their territories. The natural human instinct to dance and to sing is also believed to stem from this evolutionary need to synchronize with others.
So, the next time you get on the dance floor and someone says you don’t have rhythm, ignore them. You’ve developed from a million years of being hardwired to follow a beat.