See what I hear? Beat perception in auditory and visual rhythms

Exp Brain Res. 2012 Jul;220(1):51-61. doi: 10.1007/s00221-012-3114-8. Epub 2012 May 24.


Our perception of time is affected by the modality in which it is conveyed. Moreover, certain temporal phenomena appear to exist in only one modality. The perception of temporal regularity or structure (e.g., the 'beat') in rhythmic patterns is one such phenomenon: visual beat perception is rare. The modality-specificity for beat perception is puzzling, as the durations that comprise rhythmic patterns are much longer than the limits of visual temporal resolution. Moreover, the optimization that beat perception provides for memory of auditory sequences should be equally relevant to visual sequences. Why does beat perception appear to be modality specific? One possibility is that the nature of the visual stimulus plays a role. Previous studies have usually used brief stimuli (e.g., light flashes) to present visual rhythms. In the current study, a rotating line that appeared sequentially in different spatial orientations was used to present a visual rhythm. Discrimination accuracy for visual rhythms and auditory rhythms was compared for different types of rhythms. The rhythms either had a regular temporal structure that previously has been shown to induce beat perception in the auditory modality, or they had an irregular temporal structure without beat-inducing qualities. Overall, the visual rhythms were discriminated more poorly than the auditory rhythms. The beat-based structure, however, increased accuracy for visual as well as auditory rhythms. These results indicate that beat perception can occur in the visual modality and improve performance on a temporal discrimination task, when certain types of stimuli are used.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Music
  • Periodicity*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reaction Time
  • Time Factors
  • Time Perception
  • Visual Perception / physiology*