Rhythmic complexity and predictive coding: A novel approach to modeling rhythm and meter perception in music

Peter Vuust, Maria Witek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Citations (Scopus)
213 Downloads (Pure)


Musical rhythm, consisting of apparently abstract intervals of accented temporal events, has a remarkable capacity to move our minds and bodies. How does the cognitive system enable our experiences of rhythmically complex music? In this paper, we describe some common forms of rhythmic complexity in music and propose the theory of predictive coding (PC) as a framework for understanding how rhythm and rhythmic complexity are processed in the brain. We also consider why we feel so compelled by rhythmic tension in music. First, we consider theories of rhythm and meter perception, which provide hierarchical and computational approaches to modeling. Second, we present the theory of PC, which posits a hierarchical organization of brain responses reflecting fundamental, survival-related mechanisms associated with predicting future events. According to this theory, perception and learning is manifested through the brain’s Bayesian minimization of the error between the input to the brain and the brain’s prior expectations. Third, we develop a PC model of musical rhythm, in which rhythm perception is conceptualized as an interaction between what is heard (“rhythm”) and the brain’s anticipatory structuring of music (“meter”). Finally, we review empirical studies of the neural and behavioral effects of syncopation, polyrhythm and groove, and propose how these studies can be seen as special cases of the PC theory. We argue that musical rhythm exploits the brain’s general principles of prediction and propose that pleasure and desire for sensorimotor synchronization from musical rhythm may be a result of such mechanisms.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1111
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2014


  • rhythm
  • meter
  • rhythmic complexity
  • predictive coding
  • pleasure


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