Neural entrainment to an ambiguous polyrhythm with distinct metrical contexts (a pilot study)

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The temporal events of music are perceived as rhythmic patterns within a metrical framework (Honing, 2013; London, 2012). Our brain processes these rhythms by extracting and predicting an underlying periodicity (i.e. the beat) and its groupings and subdivisions (i.e. the meter; Honing, 2012; Fitch, 2013). Polyrhythms are temporal structures in which more than one rhythmic stream occurs at the same time. For instance, the 3:4 polyrhythm combines a ternary (3) and a quaternary (4) pulse train that provides the listener with an ambiguous percept with rhythmic tension (Vuust, Gebauer, and Witek, 2014). Here, we used the 3:4 polyrhythm to study neural aspects of beat perception in different metrical contexts. We recorded the EEG of 16 participants listening to a 3:4 polyrhythm presented at a rate of 90:120 BPM. To control for the natural tendency to tap the 3 pulse train in this polyrhythm (Møller, Stupacher, Celma-Miralles and Vuust, in prep), the amplitudes of the 4 pulse train were increased by 8 dB. To assess the effect of metrical context, we included experimental conditions where the polyrhythm was preceded by an 8-second drum beat playing either the 3 or the 4 pulse train. Using a frequency-tagging approach (Nozaradan, 2014), we analyzed the steady-state evoked potentials elicited during listening to the polyrhythm. Specifically, we compared the frequencies related to each meter (i.e. 1.5 Hz and 2 Hz) to each other and to the frequencies present in the stimulus envelope (Nozaradan, Peretz, and Mouraux, 2012). These comparisons revealed that neuronal populations enhanced neural amplitudes at the meter-related frequencies, especially when the polyrhythm was presented in a metrical context emphasizing the 3-pulse train. Participants’ preferred beat was assessed behaviourally in a separate session after the EEG-recordings, and the tapping responses showed that half of participants perceived the 4 pulse train as the beat. However, no differences between ternary- and quaternary-tappers appeared in neural entrainment, likely due to the counterbalanced position of the blocks providing different metrical contexts. In sum, the results show that neural entrainment to an ambiguous polyrhythm can be modulated by providing a metrical context to structure the incoming events of the polyrhythm, which is in line with the predictive coding of music (Vuust, Gebauer, and Witek, 2014; Vuust and Witek, 2014).
Original languageEnglish
Publication dateJun 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021
EventRhythm Production and Perception Workshop 2021 - RITMO Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Rhythm, Time and Motion, Oslo, Norway
Duration: 22 Jun 202125 Jun 2021


WorkshopRhythm Production and Perception Workshop 2021
LocationRITMO Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Rhythm, Time and Motion
Internet address


  • Beat perception
  • EEG (electroencephalography)
  • Frequency-tagging
  • polyrhythm

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