It’s all got rhythm: researcher

Elvis Presley once said that when you have rhythm, you have it all over. Now, a McGill University professor has used advanced mathematics to prove that The King was more right than he knew.

Elvis Presley once said that when you have rhythm, you have it all over. Now, a McGill University professor has used advanced mathematics to prove that The King was more right than he knew.

Daniel Levitin has found, hidden within nearly 2,000 pieces of classical music, a mathematical pattern that not only holds constant over 400 years of musical history, but also corresponds to fluctuations in everything from the human heartbeat to traffic flow on busy highways.

“I think it’s mind-blowing,” said Levitin, whose paper was published Monday in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences. “Nobody’s claiming that the composers know the equation or were trying to fit their work to the equation . . . (but) they’re writing music that conforms to it, perhaps because the brain responds preferentially to it.”

Physicists call the equation in question a one-over-f power distribution.

In its simplest form, it’s a way of mathematically describing the relative frequency of events. In a one-over-f distribution, the second most common event happens half as often as the most common, the third most common event happens one-third as often, and so on.

One-over-f patterns are everywhere.

The formula describes annual flooding levels of the Nile River, voltage fluctuations in electronic components and traffic flow on U.S. interstates. It can be found in the signals across nerve endings, the minute variations of a human heartbeat, even in DNA patterns. In the 1970s, one researcher found one-over-f in the pattern of pitches used in a small sample of classical music. Levitin said he’d always wondered if the same held true for rhythm.

“Rhythm is what gets you out of your seat, so I’ve been wanting to do this study for 20 years.”

He and his colleagues took 1,788 different pieces of music by composers from J.S. Bach to Scott Joplin and broke each line of music down according to the length of its individual notes. Entering the data took 500 hours, but the result was worth it.

“What we found is that, like pitch, rhythm conforms to this one-over-f law,” Levitin said.

Nobody knows why all this should be, but Levitin has a theory. “Our brains have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. Part of the evolution of brains is that they have to incorporate certain regularities and principles of the physical world, even ones we’re not aware of. There are these things that are built into the structure of the brain that follow regularities in the physical world. I think this one-over-f is something (like that).”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Who is at highest risk of exposure to COVID-19? Firefighters, drivers, pharmacists, cooks

Central Alberta firefighter says virus taking toll on mental health

RCMP facing ‘systemic sustainability challenges’ due to provincial policing role

Federal share is approaching $750 million annually, up from $618 million in 2012-13

LIVE: Procession to honour Snowbirds Capt. Jennifer Casey comes to Halifax

Snowbirds service member died in a crash in Kamloops one week ago

Alberta government website has latest COVID-19 statistics

Red Deer Advocate readers can stay up to date on the COVID-19… Continue reading

N.S. fire crews continue battling ‘out-of-control’ Porters Lake blaze

Word of the fire first emerged early Saturday afternoon

Technology, representation butt heads amid debate over resuming Parliament

The Liberals are now proposing four meetings a week until June 17

Procession for Snowbirds crash victim makes its way through Halifax

The 35-year-old military public affairs officer and Halifax native died in the crash

The latest numbers on COVID-19 in Canada as of May 23

There are 83,621 confirmed and presumptive cases in Canada

Procession for Snowbirds crash victim to make its way through Halifax today

The military public affairs officer died in the Snowbirds Tutor jet crash in B.C. last Sunday

Employers worry about safety, cash flow, second wave in COVID-19 restart

Only eight per cent of employers were fully prepared to restart operations, survey finds

Liberals table proposal for expanded Commons COVID-19 meetings, summer sittings

OTTAWA — The Liberals have tabled a proposal that would see expanded… Continue reading

Most Read