Both Isochronous and Non-Isochronous Metrical Subdivision Afford Precise and Stable Ensemble Entrainment: A Corpus Study of Malian Jembe Drumming

Front Neurosci. 2016 Jun 28;10:285. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2016.00285. eCollection 2016.


Most approaches to musical rhythm, whether in music theory, music psychology, or musical neuroscience, presume that musical rhythms are based on isochronous (temporally equidistant) beats and/or beat subdivisions. However, rhythms that are based on non-isochronous, or unequal patterns of time are prominent in the music of Southeast Europe, the Near East and Southern Asia, and in the music of Africa and the African diaspora. The present study examines one such style found in contemporary Malian jembe percussion music. A corpus of 15 representative performances of three different pieces ("Manjanin," "Maraka," and "Woloso") containing ~43,000 data points was analyzed. Manjanin and Woloso are characterized by non-isochronous beat subdivisions (a short IOI followed by two longer IOIs), while Maraka subdivisions are quasi-isochronous. Analyses of onsets and asynchronies show no significant differences in timing precision and coordination between the isochronously timed Maraka vs. the non-isochronously timed Woloso performances, though both pieces were slightly less variable than non-isochronous Manjanin. Thus, the precision and stability of rhythm and entrainment in human music does not necessarily depend on metric isochrony, consistent with the hypothesis that isochrony is not a biologically-based constraint on human rhythmic behavior. Rather, it may represent a historically popular option within a variety of culturally contingent options for metric organization.

Keywords: African drumming; audio-based corpus; beat subdivision; culture; ensemble entrainment; meter; rhythmic timing.