What can we learn about beat perception by comparing brain signals and stimulus envelopes?

PLoS One. 2017 Feb 22;12(2):e0172454. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0172454. eCollection 2017.


Entrainment of neural oscillations on multiple time scales is important for the perception of speech. Musical rhythms, and in particular the perception of a regular beat in musical rhythms, is also likely to rely on entrainment of neural oscillations. One recently proposed approach to studying beat perception in the context of neural entrainment and resonance (the "frequency-tagging" approach) has received an enthusiastic response from the scientific community. A specific version of the approach involves comparing frequency-domain representations of acoustic rhythm stimuli to the frequency-domain representations of neural responses to those rhythms (measured by electroencephalography, EEG). The relative amplitudes at specific EEG frequencies are compared to the relative amplitudes at the same stimulus frequencies, and enhancements at beat-related frequencies in the EEG signal are interpreted as reflecting an internal representation of the beat. Here, we show that frequency-domain representations of rhythms are sensitive to the acoustic features of the tones making up the rhythms (tone duration, onset/offset ramp duration); in fact, relative amplitudes at beat-related frequencies can be completely reversed by manipulating tone acoustics. Crucially, we show that changes to these acoustic tone features, and in turn changes to the frequency-domain representations of rhythms, do not affect beat perception. Instead, beat perception depends on the pattern of onsets (i.e., whether a rhythm has a simple or complex metrical structure). Moreover, we show that beat perception can differ for rhythms that have numerically identical frequency-domain representations. Thus, frequency-domain representations of rhythms are dissociable from beat perception. For this reason, we suggest caution in interpreting direct comparisons of rhythms and brain signals in the frequency domain. Instead, we suggest that combining EEG measurements of neural signals with creative behavioral paradigms is of more benefit to our understanding of beat perception.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Music*
  • Periodicity*
  • Time Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult

Grant support

The study was funded by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Discovery grant (RGPIN/402557; http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/), a James S. McDonnell Foundation grant to JAG, and the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario (postdoctoral fellowship awards to MJH and BH). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.