What makes a rhythm complex? The influence of musical training and accent type on beat perception

PLoS One. 2018 Jan 10;13(1):e0190322. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0190322. eCollection 2018.


Perception of a regular beat in music is inferred from different types of accents. For example, increases in loudness cause intensity accents, and the grouping of time intervals in a rhythm creates temporal accents. Accents are expected to occur on the beat: when accents are "missing" on the beat, the beat is more difficult to find. However, it is unclear whether accents occurring off the beat alter beat perception similarly to missing accents on the beat. Moreover, no one has examined whether intensity accents influence beat perception more or less strongly than temporal accents, nor how musical expertise affects sensitivity to each type of accent. In two experiments, we obtained ratings of difficulty in finding the beat in rhythms with either temporal or intensity accents, and which varied in the number of accents on the beat as well as the number of accents off the beat. In both experiments, the occurrence of accents on the beat facilitated beat detection more in musical experts than in musical novices. In addition, the number of accents on the beat affected beat finding more in rhythms with temporal accents than in rhythms with intensity accents. The effect of accents off the beat was much weaker than the effect of accents on the beat and appeared to depend on musical expertise, as well as on the number of accents on the beat: when many accents on the beat are missing, beat perception is quite difficult, and adding accents off the beat may not reduce beat perception further. Overall, the different types of accents were processed qualitatively differently, depending on musical expertise. Therefore, these findings indicate the importance of designing ecologically valid stimuli when testing beat perception in musical novices, who may need different types of accent information than musical experts to be able to find a beat. Furthermore, our findings stress the importance of carefully designing rhythms for social and clinical applications of beat perception, as not all listeners treat all rhythms alike.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Auditory Perception*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Music*

Grant support

FB is supported by an ABC Talent Grant (Amsterdam Brain and Cognition). JAB is supported by a Continuing Access to Cultural Heritage (CATCH) grant of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO; www.nwo.nl). HH is supported by a Distinguished Lorentz fellowship granted by the Lorentz Center for the Sciences and the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS; www.nias.knaw.nl) and a Horizon grant of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO; www.nwo.nl). DO is supported by the Dutch national program COMMIT (www.commit-nl.nl). JAG is supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC; www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca) and the James S. McDonnell Foundation (www.jsmf.org). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.