Evolving building blocks of rhythm: How human cognition creates music via cultural transmission

Ravignani, A., Thompson, B., Grossi, T., Delgado, T., & Kirby, S. (2018). Evolving building blocks of rhythm: How human cognition creates music via cultural transmission. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1423(1), 176-187. doi:10.1111/nyas.13610.
Why does musical rhythm have the structure it does? Musical rhythm, in all its cross-cultural diversity, exhibits commonalities across world cultures. Traditionally, music research has been split into two fields. Some scientists focused onmusicality, namely the human biocognitive predispositions formusic, with an emphasis on cross-cultural similarities. Other scholars investigatedmusic, seen as a cultural product, focusing on the variation in worldmusical cultures.Recent experiments founddeep connections betweenmusicandmusicality, reconciling theseopposing views. Here, we address the question of how individual cognitive biases affect the process of cultural evolution of music. Data from two experiments are analyzed using two complementary techniques. In the experiments, participants hear drumming patterns and imitate them. These patterns are then given to the same or another participant to imitate. The structure of these initially random patterns is tracked along experimental “generations.” Frequentist statistics show how participants’ biases are amplified by cultural transmission, making drumming patterns more structured. Structure is achieved faster in transmission within rather than between participants. A Bayesian model approximates the motif structures participants learned and created. Our data and models suggest that individual biases for musicality may shape the cultural transmission of musical rhythm.
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