Nature Has A Good Beat, But Can You Dance To It?

Rhythm in music is about timing — when notes start and stop. And now scientists say they've found a curious pattern that's common to musical rhythm. It's a pattern also found in nature.

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Let's consider now some new research on rhythm. Rhythm in music is about timing - when notes start and stop. What makes for that swing? Scientists say they've found a curious pattern that's common to musical rhythm, and it's a pattern also found in nature. NPR's Christopher Joyce has the story.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Psychologist Daniel Levitin plays the saxophone. Lately, though, he's been feeding musical scores into a computer - 558 musical scores, in fact, spanning four centuries. And he found a pattern in their rhythms. It's produced by a mathematical equation that also creates patterns in nature. You can see it in a snowflake or the leaf of a fern, where the smallest part of an object repeats itself over and over again to create the hole. Scientists call these patterns fractals, and that kind of pattern is buried in the music's rhythms, whether it's Bach or Chopin.


JOYCE: Levitin says you need a computer to reveal it.

DANIEL LEVITIN: When I try to think about that in my head, it starts to explode. But it's there. It's there in the mathematics and it's there implicitly in the music.

JOYCE: Psychologists believe the human brain recognizes and responds to repeating patterns like this one in nature.

LEVITIN: It seems as though composers have internalized these regularities of the physical world and are bringing them back out in their composition.

JOYCE: Other scientists have seen this fractal thread in melodies, the distribution of the pitches of the notes, but it didn't differ much from one composer to the next. When it comes to rhythm, though, Levitin found that the pattern showed more variety. Composers, whether they knew it or not, seemed to have played around more with rhythm.

LEVITIN: The rhythm is really what separates them. We found that Beethoven has the most predictable rhythm. Mozart has among the least predictable rhythms.

JOYCE: Each composer, in fact, had his own rhythmic signature. Some were quite similar to each other, but not the ones you might expect. Take Monteverdi, for example.


JOYCE: Monteverdi wrote madrigals and operas in the 16th century, but mathematically the rhythms of his music were more similar to...


JOYCE: Scott Joplin, the popularizer of ragtime and early jazz.


JOYCE: Levitin points out that you can't really recognize the fractal patterns by listening to a few musical phrases. You need to analyze hours of music, but it's there.

LEVITIN: So much so that if you were to give me a new undiscovered piece by the composer, I think we could tell you which composer it was.

JOYCE: Not by listening but by parsing the mathematical reason in its rhythms. Levitin's research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. You can hear him play his sax with his band, Diminished Faculty, at McGill University in Montreal, where he's a professor. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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