Our Ability To Perceive Musical Beat Becomes More Refined Through Childhood

By Emma Young

If you were to play your favourite song right now, I imagine you’d have little difficulty clapping along with the beat. Our appreciation of beat allows us to clap, dance, march and sway in time with a piece of music — or just with each other. As the authors of a new paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General point out, these behaviours occur spontaneously across human cultures. But while moving to a beat seems effortless, it involves all kinds of perceptual processes.

The team, led by Jessica E. Nave-Blodgett at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, now report that our ability to perceive beat becomes ever more refined and also nuanced through childhood and adolescence. It may seem like an instinctive ability, but it is learned — and training does make it better.

The researchers set out to explore our perceptions of both a primary beat (think of a regular metronome) and also what’s known in music as “meter“. Meter refers to more complex patterns of beats within a piece. If you’ve ever studied music and seen 4/4, for example, noted at the start of a piece, this indicates that all the notes in the measure, or bar, add up to four quarter notes. Imagine, then, a beat pattern of 1, 2 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4. The organisation of beats into regular measures like this represents another level of musical structure. 

“Perceiving meter, by definition, entails grasping multiple hierarchical levels of beat simultaneously,” the researchers note, adding: “Like beat, meter is a musical universal and it is critical for coordinating complex patterns of music across multiple individuals….A major question is when perceptual sensitivity to both beat and meter emerge during development.”

To try to answer this question, the team ran studies on children of varying ages and also adults who either had or had not been musically trained.

For the first study, they recruited 32 adults with little or no musical training and 28 musicians. Through one ear, each participant was played a series of brief excerpts of ballroom dance music. These pieces had either a 3/4 or 4/4 meter. In the other ear, they heard a low-pitched metronome. This metronome either matched or mismatched the primary beat and also played a higher-pitched click that matched or mismatched the meter (i.e. by falling on the first beat of each bar, or not). The team were able, then, to create four conditions, in which the metronome matched the music at the level of the beat or the measure or both or neither. Each time, the participants had to indicate, using a four-point scale, “how well” the click track matched the music, from “not well at all” to “very well”.

All the adults were sensitive to both the beat and the meter of the music, and used both to make their matching judgements. They could, then, perceive beat- and measure-level information simultaneously in the music and metronomes. The musicians in the study were slightly better at this, but the non-musicians could still do it.

The team then ran a very similar study on 154 children aged between 5 and 17. (The instructions were made more child-friendly for the younger ages, but the children aged 11-plus performed the task exactly as the adults had.)

Even the youngest children could perceive the primary beat to some degree — all the children rated beat-matching metronomes as better fitting than beat-mismatching metronomes (kids with musical training were particularly good at this). But with age, the difference in ratings for matching vs mismatched metronomes increased. As the researchers write, this suggests that sensitivity to beat-level information develops with age. (Slowly developing beat perception might explain why young kids move so erratically — if cutely — to their favourite songs.) However, the meter-level data was much more inconsistent. “It is likely that meter perception emerges gradually in late adolescence,” the team concludes, only reaching full maturity in adulthood.

In a follow-up study in which beat-level information was removed, 5 to 8-year-olds still couldn’t perceive any measure-level information, while 9 to 13 year-olds could. So this ability is clearly developing around this age — but it’s not yet good enough for them to use it reliably to perceive meter in complex music.

What might account for this pattern of development of beat and meter-level perception? It might relate to age-related improvements in cognitive skills and abilities such as language learning and working memory. But exposure to music no doubt makes a difference, too: adults are much better at synchronising their movements to culturally familiar than unfamiliar music, suggesting that they are better at perceiving familiar beat hierarchies.

Some groups of people have more trouble than others at moving to a beat, including children with dyslexia. As the researchers note, there is growing body of work linking problems with rhythm processing to language-related difficulties. Both the type of complex music used in this study and natural language have multiple levels of beat. This experimental set-up might then be useful for exploring just how particular problems with beat and meter perception may relate to difficulties reading or with grammar in spoken language, as well as for further exploring the development of beat perception in all of us.

Hierarchical beat perception develops throughout childhood and adolescence and is enhanced in those with musical training

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest