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Journal Article

Categorical rhythms are shared between songbirds and humans


Roeske,  Tina C.
Department of Music, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;
Department of Psychology, Hunter College;


Poeppel,  David
Department of Neuroscience, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;


Jacoby,  Nori
Research Group Computational Auditory Perception, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;
The Center for Science and Society, Columbia University;

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Roeske, T. C., Tchernichovski, O., Poeppel, D., & Jacoby, N. (2020). Categorical rhythms are shared between songbirds and humans. Current Biology, 30(18), 3544-3555.e6. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2020.06.072.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0007-5320-7
Rhythm is a prominent feature of music. Of the infinite possible ways of organizing events in time, musical rhythms are almost always distributed categorically. Such categories can facilitate the transmission of culture—a feature that songbirds and humans share. We compared rhythms of live performances of music to rhythms of wild thrush nightingale and domestic zebra finch songs. In nightingales, but not in zebra finches, we found universal rhythm categories, with patterns that were surprisingly similar to those of music. Isochronous 1:1 rhythms were similarly common. Interestingly, a bias toward small ratios (around 1:2 to 1:3), which is highly abundant in music, was observed also in thrush nightingale songs. Within that range, however, there was no statistically significant bias toward exact integer ratios (1:2 or 1:3) in the birds. High-ratio rhythms were abundant in the nightingale song and are structurally similar to fusion rhythms (ornaments) in music. In both species, preferred rhythms remained invariant over extended ranges of tempos, indicating natural categories. The number of rhythm categories decreased at higher tempos, with a threshold above which rhythm became highly stereotyped. In thrush nightingales, this threshold occurred at a tempo twice faster than in humans, indicating weaker structural constraints and a remarkable motor proficiency. Together, the results suggest that categorical rhythms reflect similar constraints on learning motor skills across species. The saliency of categorical rhythms across humans and thrush nightingales suggests that they promote, or emerge from, the cultural transmission of learned vocalizations.