Presentation Title

Aesthetics of Timing Across Musical Cultures, Styles, and Expertise


Research on auditory perception has proposed that entrainment (the human ability to synchronize action with perceived temporal events) requires isochrony (strict periodicity of the events) and is supported by biological mechanisms. However, when entrainment is realized in human behavior (e.g., music and dance), performance deviates considerably from ideal synchrony and isochrony. So far, it has not been clear whether these discrepancies are best explained in terms of (1) errors in production, (2) a preference for deviation from perceptual reference structures, seen as expressive, or (3) asynchronous/non-isochronous behaviors constituting experience-based reference structures in their own right. This remains unclear in part because the individual (subjective), group-level (sociocultural), and objective (stimulus-based) factors that influence aesthetic preferences for musical timing variations have not been studied systematically, studied in isolation, or studied only in participants with uniform (Western) musical exposure.
Here, we study aesthetic preferences for systematic deviations from synchrony and isochrony, and the factors influencing such preferences. We recruited both musician and non-musician participant groups (N = 176) from three countries (UK, Mali, and Uruguay). We resynthesized musical excerpts forming naturalistic yet manipulation-ready examples of three different musical styles (Jazz, Jembe, and Candombe) and manipulated two aspects of the stimuli: time differences between instruments (asynchronies) and patterned deviations from isochrony (metric grid). Participants engaged with the stimuli in three complementary tasks: aesthetic preference rating, a perceptual discrimination task, and sensorimotor synchronization through finger tapping.
We found a universal preference towards synchronicity, but culturally contingent preferences for systematic deviation from isochrony, thereby disentangling these two aspects of musical rhythm that were thus far considered as a unitary construct. This suggests that temporal processing relies on distinct mechanisms that vary in their reliance on low-level and high-level perception. Findings point to the role of cultural familiarity in shaping aesthetic preferences.