The Edna L. Sterling Collection



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University of Washington


This study measured musicians' ability to perform complex motor activities, seeking to provide empirical foundation for theories of neural timing behavior. In individual sessions, each of twenty-nine right-handed undergraduate or graduate percussionists or pianists performed three polymeters (2:3, 3:4, and 4:5) with two hand combinations (L:R, R:L) in six cuing contexts: (1) Uncued, without having heard the pattern, (2) Pulsewith the first pulse of each measure provided, (3) Imitate 1-in synchrony with a computer-generated pattern heard over a loudspeaker, (4) Continue/Pulseafter matching the pattern, continuing with the first pulse of each measure, (5) Imitate 2-again matching the pattern, and (6) Continue/Uncued-after matching the pattern, continuing on without cues. Tap evenness scores (standard deviation around each beat) served as the dependent variable. Factors found to be significant included hand (right more accurate than left), meter (fast more accurate than slow), hand combination (left hand performed slow meter least accurately), pattern (2:3 more accurate than 3:4, with both more accurate than 4:5), and cuing context (imitation contexts were more accurate than contexts in which first beats were provided). These effects, however, are affected by significant interactions of hand/meter and hand/meter/pattern. Very high and consistently accurate performance was observed, with many subjects performing with standard deviations under 10 milliseconds. Some musicians performed some contexts with near mathematical precision and others with systematic variation (non-random lags and anticipations). In post-experiment interviews, subjects were asked whether they had difficulties with certain aspects of performance (e.g., hand difficulty, changing hand combination, mathematically precise stimuli). Subjects also were asked about relative difficulty of polymetric pattern and performance strategy use. These reports corresponded closely with empirical performance data. Subjects reported using tactile, visual, and auditory cues and verbal mnemonics, and often reported switching between focusing on one meter or hand and focusing on the resultant rhythm of both hands together. Although high correspondence between subjects' reported cognitive activity and motor production was observed, more baseline data are needed before formulating models of rhythmic perception. Findings have implications for musicians (especially educators) and researchers in various fields examining neural aspects of motor behavior.

Publisher (Digital Object)

University of Washington



Subjects – Topical (LCSH)

Musical meter and rhythm; Left- and right-handedness


Music Education | Music Performance


Polyrhythm, Musicians, Accurate performance

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Polymetric Performance by Musicians