ICMPC Day Four – Rhythm

On Day 4 I attended a session which contained two talks about drumming. I was really interested to hear both as discussions of rhythmic skills are rarer than they should be at music psychology conferences. The first was given by Simone Dalla Bella (who I have mentioned before as having worked with amusia in the past) and the second was by Rick Ashley. I may not be able to follow these talks in as much detail as some of the others, as rhythm is really not my speciality, but these guys are both wonderful speakers and although I don’t understand everything I do enjoy the content. You never know where you may end up in research so I think it best to take in as much as possible!

1) Simone gave a talk about a 5 year old drummer prodigy he has been studying in Poland who is known as IF. IF came to light a few years ago when his parents posted a video of him on YouTube playing at age 3. At age 4 he was already playing in his dad’s band and seemed to have a natural affinity and love for drumming. Since being noticed on YouTube, he has received drumming lessons from some of the best artists in the world.

The aim of Simone’s study was to determine how good his synchronisation ability and time perception skills really were compared to both children his age and also nonmusician university students (he has also been tested against professional drummers apparently but those results were not presented here). His first test was to play along to 4 songs with a percussion pad, which measured regularity of the beats he produced. His second test was to try to synch with a metronome and also the meter of some perfectly isochronous Polish poetry (the timing of the recordings were fiddled to get them perfect obviously, but they sounded good still). Finally they tested his ability to perceive asynchrony in a series of 5 beats. Simone used a clever method of circular statistics to measure performance, which takes into account the variances of responses in nonmusicians.

The results showed that IF had almost perfect performance on the first synchronisation test, meaning he was far better than children his age and a good deal better than the university students. For the metronome task there was a similar story. For the perception tasks things were slightly different; IF was better than kids his age but not as good as the nonmusician university students.

Simone concluded that IF is very good at synchronising his body to all types of auditory stimuli, but that his production boost has not resulted in a comparable improvement in his perception. This finding is more support for the theory that there is dissociation between action and perception in the auditory world, in much the same way as there is in the visual world

2) The second talk by Rick Ashley was about the phonetics of drum patterns. Can we learn to understand the drumming of highly complex patterns, and formulate them using a type of grammar? Rick argued that up until now much that we study about music is at the surface level (i.e. the contour of the melody) when a lot of what actually moves us about music is in the complexity of the musical surface, and can be seen in the complexity of professional drumming.

He played us a little ‘Tower of Power’ –that is a nice break when you are suffering a little from conference fatigue, I can tell you! He has studied the musical structure, the body movements, the complex artefacts and the grammatical regularities of the performance and well as the nuances of improvisation.  During the course of his studies he has come up with the idea that drum patterns can be understood as ‘traditional’ grammars that use transformational rules. In fact, he demonstrated how 14 rules could explain 85% of a particular corpus of songs he had been studying – an impressive level of accounting for the variance!

Ad hoc he seems to have decided that traditional grammars are a little unsatisfying however, and he prefers to now think about probabilistic (Markov) models in his interpretation. As an example and to finish he showed a first order transition probability for the song ‘Eastside’. This is where I start to loose grip on the idea a little as these types of models are very complex for the casual observer. But I did understand the idea that the grammar of the song was such that the drum movements seemed to be selected to maximise contrast in the performance; to give rich layering and to show long range control of the elements within the piece of music. It is an extremely clever way to handle phrase structure and not something I, as a casual listener, could possibly hope to hear myself – but maybe unconsciously this is the sort of clever structuring that draws you into a piece and drives it along. Deceptively simple stuff this drumming – like the best things in life.

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