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Language and Music as Cognitive Systems$
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Patrick Rebuschat, Martin Rohmeier, John A. Hawkins, and Ian Cross

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199553426

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199553426.001.0001

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The biology and evolution of rhythm: unravelling a paradox

The biology and evolution of rhythm: unravelling a paradox

(p.73) Chapter 9 The biology and evolution of rhythm: unravelling a paradox
Language and Music as Cognitive Systems

W. Tecumseh Fitch

Oxford University Press

Periodicity is a ubiquitous feature of all living things, and coupled biological oscillators entrain to each other readily. Despite this, humans are rare if not unique in their ability to entrain their musical motor output to that of others during singing, dancing, and playing in ensembles. This presents something of a paradox concerning human rhythmic entrainment and all that goes with it: why should a phenomenon seemingly so basic be (apparently) so rare in nature? The paradox, put simply, is this: if periodicity and entrainment are ubiquitous features of all living organisms, why can't dogs dance? This chapter examines this paradox from multiple comparative viewpoints, exploring similarities and differences between humans and other animals, between different aspects of music (harmony and rhythm), and between music and spoken language. It suggests that the ‘paradox of rhythm’ can be resolved by recognizing that human rhythmic behaviour comprises several different components, each with their own biological basis and evolutionary history. It identifies at least three separable components underlying the human capacity for rhythmic behaviour. These include periodic motor pattern generation itself (an ancient and ubiquitous phenomenon); pulse (or ‘beat’) extraction from complex patterns (a form of perceptual cognition that is shared with speech, at least); and entrainment of one's own motor output to this inferred ‘beat’ (which may be the most biologically unusual feature of human rhythmic behaviour).

Keywords:   periodicity, human rhythmic entrainment, music, language, harmony, rhythm, motor pattern, pulse, beat

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