A Review of Rhythmic Memory

The interaction between music and memory has been much researched and discussed. More specifically, it has been studied how the brain remembers a rhythm and what factors can effect how well a rhythm is remembered by the brain. The different pathways of the brain that occur when listening to or reproducing a rhythm have been traced out by numerous experiments. These studies of the mechanisms in the brain have been advanced by examining individuals with certain brain disorders thought to effect rhythmic perception. Outside of observing the systems of the brain, experiments have been conducted to determine what factors and to what extent these factors affect rhythm memory, such as presentation and complexity. It has been established that rhythm is to a degree a component of remembering a piece of music and that this skill is variant among individuals of different age groups, music abilities, and learning levels. A connection that has been made in recent studies is that between musical discrimination abilities and language-related skills. People with certain language defects have corresponding shortcomings in rhythmic synchronization and recognition. Also, disorders not directly related to language, such as autism, have been revealed to parallel rhythmic ability. This knowledge of association between music and levels of learning or social ability have also given rise to the theory that music intervention among affected individuals may provide benefits and assistance towards these deficiencies. This review first examines the mechanisms of the brain involved in rhythm perception and how we interpret rhythms of different kinds. It then discusses what is known about what influences how well a rhythm can be recalled. Later, this review discusses developmental disorders that may be associated with rhythm cognition and how music is trying to be used to combat these syndromes.

Research on rhythm has demonstrated how memory plays a part in the subdivision and division of music. Spontaneous groupings of rhythms arise within a piece of music, which shows limitations in our memory (Krumhansl 2000). In order for us to be able to make sense of what we are hearing and have expectations for what we are about to hear, our mind has to come up with a way to group the beats and rhythms of music in a coherent manner. Also, simpler ratios of beats such as 1:2 are easier to imitate than more complex ratios such as 1:3 (Krumhansl 2000). Perfomance differences in rhythmic ratio imitation experiments start to emerge among individuals with different musical backgrounds, suggesting a disparity in ability to recall a rhythm among groups with varying musical experience. This difference is further supported by an experiment conducted by Habibi, Wirantana, & Starr (2014). In this study, the researchers monitored behavioral and brain activity that occurred in both musicians and nonmusicians during rhythmic variations from pairs of unfamiliar melodies. Musicians greatly outperformed nonmusicians in detecting these deviations and showed greater activity in the frontal-central areas of the brain. These results suggest that musical training may have an effect on brain activity involved in processing temporal irregularities, even of unfamiliar melodies (Habibi, Wirantana, & Starr 2014). Attempts have also been made to divide rhythms into a hierarchy that is placed in different kinds of memory (Brower 1993). The ways in which rhythm has been defined and divided provides insight into how we perceive rhythms and why certain rhythms are easier to remember than others.

Many of the experimental studies that study participants’ abilities to reproduce rhythms reference rhythms that are similar. The term “similar” may seem subjective upon first hearing it, which is a potential problem of these studies. Cao, Lotstein, & Johnson-Laird (2014) took to objectively define similar rhythms and look at the specific characteristics that make up related rhythms. Their experiments displayed that rhythms of the same “families” had the same pattern of interonset intervals, which is the space between the start of two adjacent tones (Cao, Lotstein, & Johnson-Laird 2014). Their experiments also revealed that errors in reproducing rhythms by tapping often yielded rhythms of the same family. This shows that temporal patterns in rhythms play a major role in how we perceive rhythms to be similar, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Manipulating aspects of a rhythm has been shown to have a variety of effects on how well participants can remember and reproduce a certain rhythm. The best cue for identifying a piece of music is the combination of rhythm and pitch (Hébert & Peretz 1997). In their experiment, Hébert and Peretz (1997) demonstrated that rhythm alone tends to be an insignificant indicator of a musical excerpt and less effective than pitch alone. On the other hand, other studies demonstrate the strength of melody recall with rhythm over pitch. Silverman (2010) revealed in his experiment that participants were better able to digitally recall musical excerpts with the condition of only being presented with the rhythm of a melody. In this study, participants listened to six treatment conditions of a melodic excerpt and were asked to demonstrate their memory of the different conditions by a digital recall task. Participants showed the greatest error with the pitch only and both rhythm and pitch conditions (Silverman 2010). Familiarity showed no effect in this experiment. Also, music majors outperformed non-music majors, another indication that musical experience plays in a role in rhythmic recall. A specific manipulation of rhythm that has shown to have an effect on recall is the presentation of the rhythm. Shehan (1987) showed that in second- and sixth- grade students, rhythm reproduction performance was much higher for a combination of aural and visual presentation, rather than one type of presentation alone. Also, the sixth-grade participants learned the rhythm twice as quickly as the second-grade participants (Shehan 1987). This reveals how maturation and age have a large effect on the ability to remember and recall a rhythm. Information gained from this experiment could be used to improve music education for children in presenting rhythms in a manner that is more efficient for them to learn it.

Rhythmic patterns and memory capabilities have been examined in individuals with various developmental or learning disabilities. One group of people who has been studied is those with amusia. Amusia is a loss or impairment of musical capabilities usually caused by brain disease or an injury to the brain. Results of experiments testing those with amusia have suggested that pitch and rhythm processing centers in the brain are independent of each other. Murayama, Kashiwagi, Kashiwagi, & Mimura (2004) found that participants with amusia still showed preserved rhythmic memory, even though their pitch memory was damaged. This supports the theory that pitch and rhythm operate on separate neural subsystems (Murayama, Kashiwagi, Kashiwagi, & Mimura 2004). Rhythmic processing appears to be spared in pitch deafness as well (Phillips-Silver, Tolvalnin, Gosselin, & Peretz 2013). However, other experiments have observed extreme difficulty among amusic individuals in synchronizing to musical rhythms. No such difficulty was seen in synchronizing to noise bursts, which suggests that timing impairments among amusic people are limited to music (Bella & Peretz 2006). These sometime conflicting results call attention for the need of more experimentation perhaps with stronger manipulations.

Many studies have explored the relationship between music and learning. These studies have focused on children, since this is a time of significant learning. I will focus on the studies examining the affects of dyslexia, a developmental reading disorder, on music perception. It has been shown that in children with dyslexia, musical discrimination predicts phonological skills (Forgeard, Schlaug, Norton, Rosam, & Iyengar 2008). Accurate perception of musical structures is related to literacy development in children (Huss, Verney, Fosker, Mead, & Goswami 2011). Also, children without dyslexia generally outperform those with dyslexia in rhythm recall tasks. The correlation of linguistic abilities and musical abilities indicates that linguistic and non-linguistic auditory input are connected and involved in tasks that directly relate with developmental problems, such as reading (Anvari, Trainor, Woodside, & Levy 2002). Results such as these have prompted research to test whether musical intervention in children with disorders such as dyslexia may help improve reading or linguistic skills. One such experiment introduced a short-term music curriculum in second-grade students with and without a specific learning disability (Register, Darrow, Swedberg, & Standley 2007). Significant improvement in word knowledge and reading skills were observed in both groups, showing that improved musical skills may also translate to improved linguistic skills.

Much ground has been made in the study of memory and rhythm. In particular, the connection that rhythmic perception and memory have with skill areas outside of music such as language is now better understood. These results can be used in the future to better education and improve reading skills in youth, which are enormous applications that will hopefully prove to be extremely beneficial in the near future.



Shehan, P. (1987). Effects of rote versus note presentation of rhythm learning and retention. Journal of Research in Music Education, 35(2), 117-26.

Silverman, M. (2010). The effect of pitch, rhythm, and familiarity on working memory and anxiety as measured by digit recall performance. Journal of Music Therapy, 47(1), 70-83.

Cao, E., Lotstein, M., & Johnson-Laird, P. (2014). Similarity and families of musical rhythms. Music Perception, 31(5), 444-469.

Krumhansl, C. (2000). Rhythm and pitch in music cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 126(1), 159-179.

Huss, M., Verney, J., Fosker, T., Mead, N., & Goswami, U. (2011). Music, rhythm, rise time perception and developmental dyslexia: Perception of musical meter predicts reading and phonology. Cortex, 47(6), 674-689.

Hébert, S., & Peretz, I. (1997). Recognition of music in long-term memory: Are melodic and temporal patterns equal partners? Memory and Cognition, 25(4), 518-533.

Brower, C. (1993). Memory and the Perception of Rhythm. Music Theory Spectrum, 15(1), 19-35.

Habibi, A., Wirantana, V., & Starr, A. (2014). Cortical Activity During Perception of Musical Rhythm: Comparing Musicians and Nonmusicians. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind & Brain, 24(2), 125-135.

Phillips-Silver, J., Toiviainen, P., Gosselin, N., & Peretz, I. (2013). Amusic does not mean unmusical: Beat perception and synchronization ability despite pitch deafness. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 30(5), 311-331.

Bhide, A., Power, A., & Goswami, U. (2013). A rhythmic musical intervention for poor readers: A comparison of efficacy with a letter-based intervention. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(2), 113-123.

Anvari, S., Trainor, L., Woodside, J., & Levy, B. (2002). Relations among musical skills, phonological processing, and early reading ability in preschool children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 83(2), 111-130.

Bella, S., & Peretz, I. (2003). Congenital Amusia Interferes with the Ability to Synchronize with Music. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 999, 166-169.

Register, D., Darrow, A., Swedberg, O., & Standley, J. (2007). The Use of Music to Enhance Reading Skills of Second Grade Students and Students with Reading Disabilities. Journal of Music Therapy, 44(1), 23-37.

Forgeard, M., Schlaug, G., Norton, A., Rosam, C., Iyengar, U., & Winner, E. (2008). The Relation Between Music and Phonological Processing in Normal-Reading Children and Children with Dyslexia. Music Perception, 25(4), 383-390.

Murayama, J., Kashiwagi, T., Kashiwagi, A., & Mimura, M. (2004). Impaired pitch production and preserved rhythm production in a right brain-damaged patient with amusia. Brain and Cognition, 56(1), 36-42.



3 thoughts on “A Review of Rhythmic Memory

  1. Really interesting! I had no idea that language skills shared a connection with musical discrimination ability…it leads me to wonder if the capacity to fluently speak in multiple languages could have some sort of tangible, positive impact on one’s musical ability. It was also surprising to me to learn that pitch and rhythm systems are neurally separated!

  2. Regarding melody recall with rhythm over pitch, would perhaps memory be affected with how the rhythm was presented? For example, rhythms can be played at (non-differentiating) pitches, but still be easier? I am personally interested in the 6th graders who benefited from the visual input added to the aural- related to my kinesthetic individual project. And why isn’t familiarity ever having any effect?

  3. Intro covers a lot of ground in a concise manner. Good job!

    A few points to consider:

    1. In empirical research, it is customary to add parenthetical references (authors, date) for each statement. (Note that you need a comma between the author information and the date. Also, parenthetical references can use the symbol “&” but in-text references should use the word “and”.)

    2. As you go into the details of the lit review, you should strive to re-use the same category “labels” you introduced at the end of your introduction, i.e., “This review first examines the mechanisms of the brain involved in rhythm perception and how we interpret rhythms of different kinds. It then discusses what is known about what influences how well a rhythm can be recalled. Later, this review discusses developmental disorders that may be associated with rhythm cognition and how music is trying to be used to combat these syndromes.” That way, the reader can get a sense of where he/she is in the review. In that vein, you do a great job with that in the second part: “Rhythmic patterns and memory capabilities have been examined in individuals with various developmental or learning disabilities.” It may be that your introductory descriptions were not specific enough.

    3. In the third paragraph, you should describe how the authors define “families”, i.e., what kind of features are used to establish family relationships? You might also want to give an example to illustrate. Ideally, you want to rpovide enough information so that the intereted reader doesn’t have to refer back to the article you cite, unless he/she want to review the study in detail.

    4. Make sure to distinguish “affects” from “effects”, e.g., “I will focus on the studies examining the affects of dyslexia, a developmental reading disorder, on music perception.” In this sentence, the word you want is “effects”.

    Finally, good job with the references! I am looking forward to see how this project will develop.

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