Beat perception in polyrhythms: Time is structured in binary units

Cecilie Møller*, Jan Stupacher, Alexandre Celma-Miralles, Peter Vuust

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperJournal articleResearchpeer-review


In everyday life, we group and subdivide time to understand the sensory environment surrounding us. Organizing time in units, such as diurnal rhythms, phrases, and beat patterns, is fundamental to behavior, speech, and music. When listening to music, our perceptual system extracts and nests rhythmic regularities to create a hierarchical metrical structure that enables us to predict the timing of the next events. Foot tapping and head bobbing to musical rhythms are observable evidence of this process. In the special case of polyrhythms, at least two metrical structures compete to become the reference for these temporal regularities, rendering several possible beats with which we can synchronize our movements. While there is general agreement that tempo, pitch, and loudness influence beat perception in polyrhythms, we focused on the yet neglected influence of beat subdivisions, i.e., the least common denominator of a polyrhythm ratio. In three online experiments, 300 participants listened to a range of polyrhythms and tapped their index fingers in time with the perceived beat. The polyrhythms consisted of two simultaneously presented isochronous pulse trains with different ratios (2:3, 2:5, 3:4, 3:5, 4:5, 5:6) and different tempi. For ratios 2:3 and 3:4, we additionally manipulated the pitch of the pulse trains. Results showed a highly robust influence of subdivision grouping on beat perception. This was manifested as a propensity towards beats that are subdivided into two or four equally spaced units, as opposed to beats with three or more complex groupings of subdivisions. Additionally, lower pitched pulse trains were more often perceived as the beat. Our findings suggest that subdivisions, not beats, are the basic unit of beat perception, and that the principle underlying the binary grouping of subdivisions reflects a propensity towards simplicity. This preference for simple grouping is widely applicable to human perception and cognition of time.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0252174
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2021


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