Friends Don't Let Friends Clap on One and Three: a Backbeat Clapping Study


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Friends Don't Let Friends Clap on One and Three: a Backbeat Clapping Study

  1. 1. Ethan HeinA Study ofClappingon theBackbeat
  2. 2. In 1993, the blues musician Taj Mahal gave asolo concert at the Modernes Club in Bremen,Germany. The concert was later released as thealbum An Evening of Acoustic Music. Tajbegins to play "Blues with a Feeling," and theaudience enthusiastically claps along.However, they do so on beats one and three,not two and four like they are supposed to. Tajimmediately stops playing and says, "Wait,wait, wait. Wait wait. This is schvartze [black]music... zwei and fier, one TWO three FOUR,okay?" He resumes the song, and the audiencecontinues to clap on the wrong beats. So hestops again. "No, no, no, no. Everybodys like,ONE, two, THREE, no no no. Classical music,yes. Mozart, Chopin, okay? Tchaikovsky, right?Vladimir Horowitz. ONE two THREE. Butschvartze music, one TWO three FOUR, okay?"He starts yet again, and finally the audienceclaps along correctly.
  3. 3. Research questionTo what degree do people knowthat they are supposed to clap onthe backbeat along with theblues and music like it? Doesmusical training or practicecorrelate with knowledge of thebackbeat clapping convention?HypothesisClapping on the backbeat ofdance-oriented 4/4 rhythmsstrongly correlates with musicaltraining and experience in musicof the African diaspora: jazz,rock, blues, funk, R&B, hip-hopand related styles. Clapping onthe backbeat correlates weaklywith training and experience inother musical idioms.
  4. 4. Musical and rhythmic behavior inhumans creates “a temporalframework, collective emotionality,a feeling of shared experience, andcohesiveness to group activities andritualistic ceremonies” (Bispham2006). We see a shadow of music’sancestral purpose when an audienceclaps in unison at a concert.We use coordinated rhythmic movements both for literal physical mirroring and formetaphorical mirroring, i.e. empathy. This socially mediated synchronizationexplains why it matters to musicians which beats the audience claps on. Taj Mahalfound it distressing when his audience clapped wrong because it felt like a failure toemotionally connect with them.Group clapping helps to unify theaudience’s perception of the tactus,the central pulse. Bodily movementdoes not merely accompanylistening; it enhances our ability tolisten.
  5. 5. Syncopation is a crucial method of generating rhythmic suspense and drama.We can consider rhythms to be “consonant” and “dissonant” depending ontheir degree of metrical tension. Temperley (2010) defines syncopation asrhythmic events that are improbable by the norms of classical common-practicerhythm. Syncopation violates the usual rhythmic hierarchy, and "represents theaspect of rhythmic complexity that does not relate to repetitiveness.” By thismeasure, current popular music is extraordinarily rhythmically complex, eventhough it may be simple harmonically and structurally (Temperley 1999).We can determine the “metric salience” of each event in a rhythmic pattern by“recursively breaking down a musical pattern (with an initially specified length)into subpatterns of equal length.” The more subdivisions it takes to reach agiven event, the lower its metrical salience. In 4/4 time, the downbeat is themost salient position, followed by beat three. It would seem natural to clap onthe strongest, most salient beat—indeed, this is what many untrained listenersdo. However, the Afro-Caribbean core of American popular/vernacular musicasks us to accent the less metrically salient backbeats instead.
  6. 6. Background on the backbeatA backbeat rhythm places percussive accents on the weak beats, typically thesecond and fourth beats in 4/4 time. Accented backbeats are most commonlyplayed on the snare drum, but can be performed on any instrument.The backbeat originated in Dixieland jazz, country and gospel music. It hassince become ubiquitous throughout American and global popular music.While accenting weak beats was a common device in American popularmusic throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the term “backbeat”did not enter common usage until the advent of rock and roll in the early1950s—appropriately enough, since the backbeat is a foundationalcomponent of rock.
  7. 7. The dominance of the backbeat is a significant factor in the broader Africanizationof American music. You can hear the vestiges of traditional West African musicthat survived slavery in the percussion-heavy, improvisationally oriented andshouted/chanted music on every pop radio station. Generally speaking, Africanmusic is rhythmically complex and harmonically static, a neat inverse of Europe’sharmonically rich but rhythmically unsophisticated tradition. American musicalhistory is largely shaped by the collision between these two musical cultures,along with contributions from immigrant groups and international influences.
  8. 8. In spite of the backbeats popularity, it is widelymisunderstood. The tangled history of America’s racialand class politics may provide an explanation. Thebackbeat originated in the music of marginalized groups:African-Americans, poor rural whites, and immigrants.Their music styles have been regarded throughout theirhistory to be disreputable, low-class, primitive andbarbaric, even perceived as undermining the moral fabricof society entirely. Funk in particular threatensAmericans’ more puritanical instincts, due to itsassociations with bodily functions and sexual odors.Terms of praise among funk musicians include dirty, filthy,raw, stanky and nasty. These bodily metaphors areintrinsic to funk’s appeal, particularly its ability to inspireaudience participation and dancing, but a great manyAmericans find them anxiety-producing, even threatening.Furthermore, funk’s overt Afrocentrism provokes racialanxieties that have only been heightened by hip-hop. Thejazz drummer Max Roach is quoted by Greenwald (2002):"The thing that frightened people about hip-hop was thatthey heard rhythm—rhythm for rhythms sake."
  9. 9. As long as Americans devalue thebodily intelligence represented by thebackbeat, they will naturally continueto misunderstand and demean it.McClary (1989) argues that it requiresgreater skill and musicality to producethe groove in a dance-oriented Earth,Wind & Fire song than to generate“the self-denying, ‘difficult’ rhythms"in modern classical music. "One needonly observe professional classicalperformers attempting to captureanything approaching ‘swing’ (forgetabout funk!) to appreciate how trulydifficult this apparently immediatemusic is.” We may hope that backbeat-based dance music will continue tofind the acceptance and understandingthat has thus far failed to match itspopularity.
  10. 10. ProcedureParticipants filled out questionnairesasking them to self-evaluate their degree ofsophistication with African diasporic musicand music generally. They then clapped toa series of breakbeats representative ofcontemporary dance music. The beats werelooped continuously in Ableton Live 8.Participants were told to clap along inwhatever way they felt to make the mostmusical sense. Their performances wererecorded via a Macbook Pro’s built-inmicrophone into Live. The experimenterstopped recording when the participantwas observed to be clapping in a stablepattern. The drum loops were presented ina mostly random order, with exception ofthe the most complex break. This waspresented last, out of concern thatparticipants would be discouraged by it.
  11. 11. MethodologyThe twenty-two study participants wereNew York City residents betweentwenty and forty years old, spanning abroad variety of nationalities andcultural backgrounds. Most had formalmusical experience and training, someup to the professional level, but effortwas made to include non-musicians aswell. The stimuli were breakbeatschosen on the basis of their familiarity toeven casual listeners of contemporarybackbeat-driven African diasporicmusic. All are in 4/4 time at medium tofast dance tempi. Their instrumentationis limited to standard drum kit, exceptfor “Take Me to the Mardi Gras,” whichadds bells and found sounds. Thebreakbeats are listed below in order ofincreasing complexity.
  12. 12. Billie JeanThis breakbeat consists of the opening measures of a prominent single fromone of the most popular recordings in history, Michael Jacksons 1982 albumThriller. Leon "Ndugu" Chanclers simple, powerful drumming combineswith an unusual drum recording technique to produce an instantlyrecognizable sound. Nearly all participants identified the source of this beatimmediately.
  13. 13. Impeach the PresidentThis two-bar drum pattern opens a little-known 1973 song by the HoneyDrippers. Despite the source recording’s obscurity, the breakbeat is one ofthe most common samples in hip-hop. It has appeared in songs by AudioTwo, Eric B. and Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, Slick Rick, Nice &Smooth, De La Soul, Mary J. Blige, Digable Planets, Notorious B.I.G. and theWu-Tang Clan, among many others.
  14. 14. Take Me to the Mardi GrasThe opening to Bob James’ 1975 instrumental version of Paul Simons song"Take Me to the Mardi Gras" combines a funk beat, an agogô bell patternand some sampled radio chatter. This break is best known as the basis for"Peter Piper" by Run-DMC, and has also been sampled by LL Cool J, theBeastie Boys, Missy Elliott, Common and the Wu-Tang Clan. It is distinctivein its blend of traditional Afro-Caribbean rhythm, American funk andmusique concréte.
  15. 15. The Funky Drummer"The Funky Drummer Parts One and Two" by James Brown and the JBs,recorded in 1969, was not well known until the first generation of hip-hopproducers discovered Clyde Stubblefields drum break. In 1986, Polydorreleased In The Jungle Groove, a compilation featuring the hard-edged,open-ended grooves preferred by hip-hop listeners. It was the first albumrelease of "The Funky Drummer Parts One and Two‚" and also included asampling-friendly remix of the break, "Funky Drummer (Bonus BeatReprise)." The break has since appeared in uncountably many hip-hop,dance, pop and rock songs.
  16. 16. Amen, BrotherThere are few sounds more important to electronic dance music thanGregory Cylvester Colemans drum break in "Amen Brother" by theWinstons, an obscure B-side to the minor hit "Color Him Father." Since theAmen break began to appear in hip-hop songs in the early 1980s, it hasbecome ubiquitous throughout all styles of electronic dance music. Inparticular, the beats in the Drum n Bass genre consist almost entirely ofreshuffled and altered versions of the Amen break. The break has crossedover into the popular mainstream as well, even appearing in televisiontheme songs and commercials.
  17. 17. The questionnaires were adapted from Müllensiefen, D., Gingras, B., Stewart,L. & Musil, J. (2011). The Goldsmiths Musical Sophistication Index (Gold-MSI):Technical Report and Documentation v0.9. London: Goldsmiths, University ofLondon. Unless otherwise specified, question response choices were:1. Completely Disagree2. Strongly Disagree3. Disagree4. Neither Agree nor Disagree5. Agree6. Strongly Agree7. Completely AgreeFor the purposes of the questionnaire, African diasporic music includes but isnot limited to the following genres and their subgenres.• Blues• Gospel (spirituals)• Jazz (ragtime, swing, bebop, free/avant-garde, fusion, Latin, bossa)• Country (bluegrass, zydeco)• R&B (doo-wop, soul, funk, disco)• Rock (rockabilly, punk, indie, metal)• Afro-Caribbean (son, rumba, salsa and merengue, calypso, soca, etc.)• Reggae (ska, dub, dancehall)• Electronic dance music (electro, house, techno, drum n bass, dubstep, etc.)• Hip-Hop
  18. 18. 1. I often listen to African diasporic music as a mainactivity.2. I consider one or more forms of African diasporicmusic to be a central part of my identity.3. Certain pieces of African diasporic music can sendshivers down my spine.4. I use African diasporic music to calm myself whenIm stressed.5. Im intrigued by musical styles Im not familiar withand want to find out more.6. I generally tap or clap along when listening toAfrican diasporic music.7. I think that African diasporic music is very importantfor setting the atmosphere of an occasion.8. I can compare and discuss differences between twoperformances or versions of the same piece of Africandiasporic music.9. I can clap along to music in a group situation withouthaving to follow other peoples lead.10. I have been complimented for my talents as a musicalperformer in one or more African diasporic styles.11. I can tell when people sing or play out of time withthe beat.12. The ability to play African diasporic music is a veryvaluable skill.13. I have no difficulty in distinguishing between Africandiasporic musical genres.14. African diasporic music is an addiction for me - Icouldnt live without it.a. 0b. 1c. 2d. 3e. 4 – 5f. 6 – 9g. 10 or morea. 0b. ½c. 1d. 2e. 3 – 5f. 6 – 9g. 10 or morea. 0 - 15 minutesb. 15 - 30 minutesc. 30 - 60 minutesd. 60 - 90 minutese. 2 hoursf. 2 - 3 hoursg. 4 hours or morea. 0b. 1c. 2d. 3e. 4 – 6f. 7 – 10g. 11 or moreAfrican Diasporic Musical Sophistication Assessment15. I often read or search the internet for things related toAfrican diasporic music.16. I often pick particular African diasporic music to motivate orexcite me.17. I have engaged in regular daily practice of African diasporicmusic on an instrument or vocally for this many years:18. I have had formal training in an African diasporic style onany instrument (including voice) for this many years:19. I listen attentively to African diasporic music for thisamount of time per day:20. I have attended this many live African diasporic musicevents as an audience member in the past twelve months:
  19. 19. General Musical Sophistication Assessment1. I often listen to any kind of music as a main activity.2. I consider one or more forms of any kind of musicto be a central part of my identity.3. Certain pieces of music can send shivers down myspine.4. I use any kind of music to calm myself when Imstressed.5. If I hear two tones played one after another, I haveno trouble judging which of them is higher.6. I generally tap or clap along when listening to anymusic with a beat.7. I think that music in general is very important forsetting the atmosphere of an occasion.8. I can compare and discuss differences between twoperformances or versions of the same piece of anykind of music.9. I can sing or play music from memory.10. I have been complimented for my talents as amusical performer in any style.11. I can tell when people sing or play out of tune.12. The ability to play any kind of music is a veryvaluable skill.13. I have no difficulty in distinguishing betweenmusical genres.14. Music of any kind is an addiction for me - I couldntlive without it.15. I often read or search the internet for things related toany kind of music.16. I often pick particular music to motivate or excite me.17. I have engaged in regular daily practice of any kind ofmusic on an instrument or vocally for this many years:18. I have had formal training in any style of music onany instrument (including voice) for this many years:19. I listen attentively to any kind of music for this amountof time per day:20. I have attended this many live music events of any kindas an audience member in the past twelve months:a. 0b. 1c. 2d. 3e. 4 – 5f. 6 – 9g. 10 or morea. 0b. ½c. 1d. 2e. 3 – 5f. 6 – 9g. 10 or morea. 0 - 15 minutesb. 15 - 30 minutesc. 30 - 60 minutesd. 60 - 90 minutese. 2 hoursf. 2 - 3 hoursg. 4 hours or morea. 0b. 1c. 2d. 3e. 4 – 6f. 7 – 10g. 11 or more
  20. 20. ResultsThis image shows Take Me to the Mardi Gras and the first few recorded responses.The top waveform is the stimulus. The tracks below show three participantsclapping on the backbeats, followed by one clapping on the strong beats.
  21. 21. Most participants interpreted the instructions to mean that they shouldsimply clap to the beat. A minority used more expressive and complexclapping patterns, or settled into haphazard and idiosyncratic patterns. Twoparticipants’ results were not used, as their clapping did not ever settle intodistinguishable patterns.The following five figures display aggregate clapping results for eachstimulus. The vertical axes show total number of claps recorded across allparticipants.The Funky Drummer0!2!4!6!8!10!12!14!16!18!20!1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
  22. 22. Impeach the President0!2!4!6!8!10!12!14!16!18!1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +0!2!4!6!8!10!12!14!16!18!20!1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +Take Me to the Mardi GrasThe majority ofparticipants clappedconsistently on thebackbeats. Contrary toexpectation, the beat toreceive the next mostclaps was not thedownbeat; rather, beatthree received slightlymore claps. This mayindicate a slightpreference for the“hyper-backbeat,”considering a measureto be two bars of four.
  23. 23. Amen, Brother0!2!4!6!8!10!12!14!16!1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +As expected, the Amen breakproduced the most variationin clapping patterns, since itshigh degree of syncopationtended to throw participantsoff. Surprisingly, of theremaining stimuli, Billie Jeanshowed the most variation inresponses, in spite of itssimplicity. Several participantsreported being distracted bythe recording’s familiarity;they said that they werewaiting for the bassline andsynthesizer stabs to enter, andwere attempting to clap tothose other patterns.Billie Jean0!2!4!6!8!10!12!14!16!18!1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
  24. 24. SubjectnumberAfrican diasporicmusical sophisticationscoreGeneral musicalsophisticationscoreRatio of Africandiasporic to generalsophisticationscoresBackbeatclappingscore7593 107 95 1.13 52423 105 99 1.06 103926 110 105 1.05 102524 58 57 1.02 106147 68 67 1.01 87767 77 76 1.01 62415 104 103 1.01 77098 105 107 0.98 10849 89 92 0.97 97155 55 57 0.96 1285 107 112 0.96 102683 106 111 0.95 35094 96 101 0.95 102982 100 107 0.93 10675 105 117 0.90 104378 86 96 0.90 109876 87 99 0.88 65406 87 115 0.76 82630 49 95 0.52 15769 37 90 0.41 3Mean 86.90 95.05 0.92 7.35StandardDeviation 22.33 17.80 0.17 3.20This table shows participants’ musical sophistication and backbeatclapping scores. We expected participants with the largest ratio ofAfrican diasporic to general musical sophistication to have thehighest backbeat clapping scores. This was indeed largely thecase, though there was more variation than expected.
  25. 25. SubjectnumberRatio of Africandiasporic musicalsophistication score tobackbeat clapping scoreRatio of generalmusicalsophistication scoreto backbeat clappingscore7593 21.40 19.002423 10.50 9.903926 11.00 10.502524 5.80 5.706147 8.50 8.387767 12.83 12.672415 14.86 14.717098 10.50 10.70849 9.89 10.227155 55.00 57.00285 10.70 11.202683 35.33 37.005094 9.60 10.102982 10.00 10.70675 10.50 11.704378 8.60 9.609876 14.50 16.505406 10.88 14.382630 49.00 95.005769 12.33 30.00Mean 16.59 20.25StandardDeviation 13.64 21.35A comparison ofparticipants’ musicalsophistication scoresto their backbeatclapping scores showssignificant variationfrom the mean. The“noisiness” of theresults is most likelythe result of thequestionnaires’intrinsic subjectivity.
  26. 26. African Diasporic Music Sophistication Scorevs Backbeat Clapping ScoreGeneral Music Sophistication Scorevs Backbeat Clapping Score0!1!2!3!4!5!6!7!8!9!10!0! 20! 40! 60! 80! 100! 120! 140!Backbeatclappingscores!Musical sophistication scores!A graph showing lines of best fit through scatter plots of the compared musicalsophistication and backbeat clapping scores reveals an unambiguous positivecorrelation between both African diasporic and general musical sophistication scoresand backbeat clapping scores. Furthermore, as expected, the correlation is strongerfor African diasporic musical sophistication than for general musical sophistication.
  27. 27. DiscussionThree participants gave particularly interesting results. Subject 2524 self-reportedthe lowest general musical aptitude of any participant, yet clapped consistentlyand strongly on the backbeat in all five trials. In an informal discussion after theexperiment had concluded, she described her upbringing in a black church inBrooklyn. In this context, she experienced the backbeat as the only “natural” placeto clap. She expressed surprise upon learning that clapping on strong beats isquite common. Indeed, in the course of the conversation, she consistently used theterm “off beat” to refer to beats one and three, which, while technically incorrect,is a testament to the depth of her internalization of the backbeat tradition.On the opposite side of the spectrum, subject 2630 clapped clearly and confidentlyon the strong beats in all five trials, the only participant to do so. Tellingly, herratio of African diasporic to general musical sophistication was the second lowestof any participant. Even though her general musical sophistication score wasalmost precisely equal to the median, her African diasporic sophistication scorewas among the lowest of all participants. In a conversation after the experiment,the participant described her most significant participatory music experience,childhood piano lessons in the western classical music idiom.
  28. 28. Finally, subject 5769 was an interesting outlier. He is an accomplished tabla player inthe Hindustani classical tradition, but he has had little exposure to Western music, andis almost totally unfamiliar with African diasporic music. He was the only participantto have encountered all five breakbeats for the first time during the experiment, andhis clapping choices were totally idiosyncratic:• Billie Jean: “and” of two, “and” of four, i.e. the backbeats displaced half a beat.• Impeach the President: “and” of two, “and” of three.• Take Me to the Mardi Gras: a complex sixteenth-note pattern.• The Funky Drummer: “and” of three, four, “and” of four.• Amen, Brother: another complex sixteenth-note pattern.It would be a fascinatingexercise to record himimprovising on the tablain reaction to these andother breakbeats. Inaddition to itsmusicological value, itwould likely make anenjoyable work of art.
  29. 29. Problems and challengesThe greatest limitation of the study lies in the method of quantifying musicalsophistication. This study likely understates the difference between the ratio ofAfrican diasporic sophistication score to backbeat clapping score versus the ratioof general musical sophistication score to backbeat score. African diasporic musicis a subset of music generally, not an oppositional category.As mentioned in the Results section, the noisiness of the data is likely caused bythe participants’ subjective responses to the questionnaires. Reducing all of theintricate complexities of a person’s musical knowledge and experience to a singlenumber is an inherently problematic undertaking. The Goldsmiths MusicalSophistication Index is as good a tool as one could ask for, but it still suffers fromthe vagaries of subjective self-evaluation. Respondents may overvalue orundervalue their abilities; they may use more or less stringent value scales toevaluate themselves; they may interpret questions and instructions in unexpectedways. The Goldsmiths survey seeks to compensate for these problems by asking agreat many questions with as much precision of language as possible. However,the Goldsmiths survey’s thoroughness poses a problem of its own, since filling itout is quite time-consuming. The present experiment sacrifices a great deal of theGoldsmiths survey’s nuance in favor of a more manageably brief questionnaire.
  30. 30. Directions for further researchThe experiment did not strictly compare clapping on the backbeat to clappingon the strong beats; rather, it compared both of these categories to clappingon every eighth note, or every quarter note, or some other combination ofbeats. It would perhaps have been better to instruct participants to clap out asteady beat, rather than allowing them to clap in whatever manner theychose. However, in the interest of including non-musicians, it was ultimatelydecided to keep the instructions open-ended. It would be interesting to seewhether a study restricting participants to strong beats or backbeats onlywould strengthen or weaken the present study’s findings.Another intriguing line of research would be to test familiarity with othercustomary clapping patterns, for example Afro-Cuban son clave. While thispattern is not as familiar or ubiquitous as the backbeat, it is still afoundational motif throughout African diasporic music. However, becausethe pattern is more complex and subtle, it would likely be necessary torestrict test subjects to musicians in order to obtain meaningful results.
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