Rhythm & Asynchronous Time
It may be a familiar experience for many who have played in a drum circle that groups can seldom keep a steady beat without speeding up. I was recently asked why this happens and would like to proffer an explanation of the process that I believe reveals an interesting dynamic of our experience of rhythm.
I believe that our perception of time is variable. During moments of high stress, the brain is flushed with neurotransmitters that heighten the awareness to precise details and minute time spans. The sensation of time being expanded is caused by the increased number of stimuli that our brain observes. (One may compare it with the "bullet time" portrayed in the movie The Matrix in which the hero is able to dodge bullets by his own perception of time slowing.) As the brain perceives more content within each second, the second itself seems to dilate. (I'm talking only of peceived time dilation. There is a completely different kind of time dilation between objects moving at differing relative velocities demonstrated by Einstein's theory of Special Relativity.)

There is another contrary experience in the brain that creates the sensation of the compacting of time or timelessness. This has been termed "flow experience" during which the brain is so focused on a certain task or process that it loses its focus and awareness on the passing of time in its surroundings.

Both of these experiences are tied to the amount of involvement of the Basal Ganglia in observing our process and making us aware of its measurements of intervals. MRI scans of the brain listening to music reveals heightened engagement of the Basal Ganglia, the region of the brain near the top of the brain stem, our kinesthetic stopwatch. The brain is so stimulated by the intervals of time passing in its surroundings that this region pulses with neural activity.

Which time effect should music trigger, speeding or slowing? I believe both can be triggered by different genres of music. I personally find ambient music to be conducive to focusing the brain on internal processes, causing reflection and a meditative state that is similar to flow experience. However, I find that highly rhythmic music leads to sensations of time dilation. This is most dramatic in music that has shifting rhythmic patterns.

I find that rhythmic patterns that are a mix of fast beats within a larger slower rhythm cycle often cause amateur drummers to increase their drumming speed. The explanation is fairly simple: the brain is being startled by the barrage of fast beats within the phrase and causing a perception of time-slowing within the brain. Consequently, the drummer speeds up his/her playing to keep up with the earlier percieved flow of time suggested by the rhythmic phrase which is the frame of reference. Experienced drummers may be less startled by the internal beats of a phrase and experience the time dialation less, or they may simply be highly focused on the phrase downbeats for orientation and therefore not experience the urge to speed up.

I find that this fluidity of time creates an alluring drive within rhythm phrases. Elsewhere in my rhythmatism I describe the sensation of falling that drummers create prior to a downbeat to accentuate rhythmic pulse (achieved through trills or upbeat accents). In some music with long rhythm phrases and incredible complexity within the phrase, I find myself experiencing both a rushing forward and halting of time. The internal complexity of the phrase creates the heightened awareness that makes me expect the downbeat to come sooner. When it indeed does not, and instead comes a couple microseconds after the interpreted tempo, it creates a heaviness/gravity to the beat that mystifies and entices the mind. I sense that the music is surging when in fact it is my mind's perception that is speeding up and slowing down. It is a mental departure from normal time that is resynchronized with external time each cycle of the rhythm phrase.

Rhythmic music causes a heightened attention to the passing of time. If you feel your life is passing you by too fast, it may be that you are not paying enough attention to each passing moment. So next time you hear somebody straying from the beat, just realize that they may be experiencing time dialation. Who knows, this may be the best way to get the most out of life. After all, we can never be in control of how many moments we will live in this life. All we can do is control is the amount of awareness that we pay to each moment.

For more information on the role of the basal ganglia in the perception of time refer to the September 02 special edition of Scientific American. Scientific American

For more information on The Matrix visit: What is the Matrix?

For more information on flow experience read: "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience"