Categorical Rhythms Are Shared between Songbirds and Humans

Tina C. Roeske, Ofer Tchernichovski, David Poeppel, Nori Jacoby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Rhythm is a prominent feature of music. Of the infinite possible ways of organizing events in time, musical rhythms are almost always distributed categorically. Such categories can facilitate the transmission of culture—a feature that songbirds and humans share. We compared rhythms of live performances of music to rhythms of wild thrush nightingale and domestic zebra finch songs. In nightingales, but not in zebra finches, we found universal rhythm categories, with patterns that were surprisingly similar to those of music. Isochronous 1:1 rhythms were similarly common. Interestingly, a bias toward small ratios (around 1:2 to 1:3), which is highly abundant in music, was observed also in thrush nightingale songs. Within that range, however, there was no statistically significant bias toward exact integer ratios (1:2 or 1:3) in the birds. High-ratio rhythms were abundant in the nightingale song and are structurally similar to fusion rhythms (ornaments) in music. In both species, preferred rhythms remained invariant over extended ranges of tempos, indicating natural categories. The number of rhythm categories decreased at higher tempos, with a threshold above which rhythm became highly stereotyped. In thrush nightingales, this threshold occurred at a tempo twice faster than in humans, indicating weaker structural constraints and a remarkable motor proficiency. Together, the results suggest that categorical rhythms reflect similar constraints on learning motor skills across species. The saliency of categorical rhythms across humans and thrush nightingales suggests that they promote, or emerge from, the cultural transmission of learned vocalizations. Video Abstract: [Figure presented] Comparing rhythm between music and birdsong, Roeske, Tchernichovski et al. report that some songbirds’ rhythms are categorical, like musical rhythms across cultures. Across species and cultures, the categories overlap but are not identical. Categorical rhythm may promote (or emerge from) cultural transmission of learned vocalizations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3544-3555.e6
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number18
StatePublished - Sep 21 2020


  • bio-musicology
  • birdsong
  • categorical rhythm
  • cross-cultural comparison
  • finger tapping
  • inter-species comparison
  • learned vocalizations
  • music
  • rhythm production

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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