‘Pulse’ in music and language

In this paper, we are focusing on an analysis of time in social interaction and musical interaction and addressing how rhythm and synchrony are considered in music and in human conversation. For example, if we take the idea of periodicity or pulse, in music, this needs to be continuous throughout a musical piece or performance; however, in linguistic interactions, this occurs at various levels: some over more extended periods such as a continuous stream of speech that may be broken by pauses, hesitations, and interjections, and others for moments in the interaction.

On entrainment, Bispham (2006) explores in detail whether one can talk about entrainment in the same way in linguistic and musical performance. He cites Patel and Daniele (2003) that ‘… correlations between aspects of temporal structuring in music and language suggest some overlap in the mechanisms employed’ (Ibid.129) and postulates from this that we can consider
(a) interpersonal entrainment as being the key rhythmic feature in human interaction ranging from a ‘loose subconscious use of pulse as a framework for interpersonal/turn-taking interactions as in mother–infant talk and linguistic interactions’ to a more strict adherence to pulse (groove) in group behaviour and synchronicity of output, to maintain temporal stability and group coordination, in music and dance, and
(b) that the ‘appearance of pulse in non-musical interaction does not depend on entrainment mechanisms similar to those employed in music, and is the result of organizing actions in relation to short-term and constantly interrupted pulses and expectancies based on temporal cues and experience.’

Both possible perspectives embody differing conceptions of entrainment held within them and differing perceptions of human interaction. In distinguishing ‘pulse’ in music and language, Bispham (Ibid.) says that ‘attentional pulse is a well-modelled and widely accepted feature of temporal perception in which perceived regularities build expectations as to the timing of future events (Jones 1976). Musical pulse, however, would appear to be distinct in that it is maintained over time and is perceived unambiguously, or at related hierarchical levels (London 2004), by enculturated individuals (Stobart and Cross 2000).

Language invariably embodies ambiguity, giving rise to the need for trust, emotional well-being, desire to connect with others, and trying to make sense of a communicative situation. Yet in both language and music, we build expectations about the timing of what will be said or happen next based on past regularities, albeit with constant adjustments that are ideally made mutually when there is trust. The difference lies in the nature of the regularity of the shared pulse that we are attending to. The following explains how pulse is achieved in music.

Music pulse is achieved by synchronizing motor (physical) action, which music psychologists term ‘sensory motor synchronization’ (SMS). In order to be able to sustain this in any performance, they have found that there are ‘correcting’ mechanisms (Repp 2005) that help in keeping in time together or even in keeping in time to moving to music. These findings have come from experiments that involve participants tapping one finger (normally the index finger) to music or beats that are played to them, or tapping with other participants to such stimuli (refs). ‘Errors’ arise from the periodic timings of our motor capacities (our finger movements) when we tap to regular sound stimuli. Error correction appears to be an inbuilt natural capacity that we have in order to keep in time. Without it, the variability in our periodic motor movements would accumulate with the probability of large asynchronies occurring (Repp Op cit. p. 976).