The effects of rhythmic structure on tapping accuracy

Andrew J. Milne*, Roger T. Dean, David Bulger

*Corresponding author for this work

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Prior investigations of simple rhythms in familiar time signatures have shown the importance of several mechanisms; notably, those related to metricization and grouping. But there has been limited study of complex rhythms, including those in unfamiliar time signatures, such as are found outside mainstream Western music. Here, we investigate how the structures of 91 rhythms with nonisochronous onsets (mostly complex, several in unfamiliar time signatures) influence the accuracy, velocity, and timing of taps made by participants attempting to synchronize with these onsets. The onsets were piano-tone cues sounded at a well-formed subset of isochronous cymbal pulses; the latter occurring every 234 ms. We modelled tapping at both the rhythm level and the pulse level; the latter provides insight into how rhythmic structure makes some cues easier to tap and why incorrect (uncued) taps may occur. In our models, we use a wide variety of quantifications of rhythmic features, several of which are novel and many of which are indicative of underlying mechanisms, strategies, or heuristics. The results show that, for these tricky rhythms, taps are disrupted by unfamiliar period lengths and are guided by crude encodings of each rhythm: the density of rhythmic cues, their circular mean and variance, and recognizing common small patterns and the approximate positions of groups of cues. These lossy encodings are often counterproductive for discriminating between cued and uncued pulses and are quite different to mechanisms—such as metricization and emphasizing group boundaries—thought to guide tapping behaviours in learned and familiar rhythms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2673-2699
Number of pages27
JournalAttention, Perception, and Psychophysics
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2023

Bibliographical note

© 2023, The Author(s). Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • Meter
  • Music cognition
  • Rhythm
  • Synchronized tapping


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