Researchers Highlight The Challenge Of Synchronizing To A Complex Rhythm

Most people can dance and tap their feet to the beat, but a few recent research studies have shown that some people are better at keeping a rhythm than others. One group of researchers looked at brainwaves of musicians as they tapped a difficult rhythm, while another study compared how artistic swimmers and waterpolo players differed in their ability to move their arms and legs to a different beat.

Researchers at McGill University in Canada investigated what happens in the brain when musicians try to synchronize to a rhythm they’re hearing. They chose to study musicians because they would all have the ability to hear and produce rhythms, which would make it easier to study how these two actions matched up.

They gave them three different rhythms to listen to, and asked them to tap their hand along to the beat, while monitoring their brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG). The easiest rhythm corresponded to one tone per beat, or one tap for every sound. A slightly more complex rhythm had two tones for every tap, and the most challenging one was a 3:2 rhythm — three notes for every two taps. Even though trained musicians were able to tap all these rhythms, the researchers noticed some interesting differences. They made more mistakes when the rhythm was complicated, and that was visible in their EEG.

But not all musicians responded the same way. It seemed that some of them were better than others at synchronizing their brain waves with the sound waves.

In a statement to McGill University, PhD students Brian Mathias and Anna Zamm said “Most musicians are good synchronizers; nonetheless, this signal was sensitive enough to distinguish the “good” from the “better” or “super-synchronizers”, as we sometimes call them.”

Speaking of super-synchronizers, a separate study by researchers in Japan and Norway recently showed that artistic swimmers (or synchronized swimmers) are better at moving their arms to the rhythm of a beat than waterpolo players. Both sports require a skill called egg-beating: leg movements that allow the swimmer to keep their upper body out of the water, so they can use their arms – either for passing a ball, or to perform the movements of an artistic swimming routine.

In PLOS One, the sports scientists describe how they asked both groups of swimmers to perform arm movements to the rhythm of a metronome, while maintaining their eggbeater kick in the water. If the rhythm they heard matched the movements they naturally made with their legs to stay afloat, both groups were able to keep their arms moving to the beat. But if the beat was slightly slower or faster than their legs were going, the water polo players started getting in trouble. They were now moving their arms and legs to a different rhythm, and that’s incredibly difficult. However, this was old hat for the artistic swimmers, who are used to adjusting their arm movements to the music while their legs are working independently.

That one group of athletes was better at this task suggests that moving to a rhythm is something that you can improve at with practice. And indeed, that’s also what the neuroscientists at McGill found. Lead researcher Caroline Palmer said in her university’s news release that “Practice definitely improves your ability and improves the alignment of the brain rhythms with the musical rhythms.” However, she also added that some people do have a natural ability to be better at this. “Whether everyone is going to be as good as a drummer is not clear.”

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