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Book Chapter

Non-isochronous metre in music from Mali


Polak,  Rainer
Department of Music, Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Max Planck Society;

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Polak, R. (2022). Non-isochronous metre in music from Mali. In M. Doffman, E. Payne, & T. Young (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of time in music (pp. 252-274). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190947279.013.22.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0009-C3C6-B
The basic building blocks for rhythmic structure in music are widely believed to be universally confined to small-integer ratios. In particular, basic metric processes such as pulse perception are assumed to depend on the recognition and anticipation of even, categorically equivalent durations or inter-onset intervals, which are related by the ratio of 1:1 (isochrony). Correspondingly, uneven (non-isochronous) beat subdivisions are theorized as instances of expressive microtiming variation, i.e. as performance deviations from some underlying, categorically isochronous temporal structure. By contrast, ethnographic experience suggests that the periodic patterns of uneven beat subdivision timing in various styles of music from Mali themselves constitute rhythmic and metric structures. The present chapter elaborates this hypothesis and surveys a series of empirical research projects that have found evidence for it. These findings have implications for metric theory as well as for our broader understanding of how human perception relates to cultural environments. They suggest that the bias towards isochrony, which according to many accounts of rhythm and metre underlies pulse perception, is culturally specific rather than universal. Claims regarding cultural diversity in the study of music typically concern styles and meanings of performance practices. In this chapter, I will claim that basic structures of perception can vary across cultural groups too.