COLUMBUS, Ohio – People change the rate at which they speak or play music to more closely match speakers or musicians they have just heard, new research suggests.
One study found that musicians played faster or slower than their normal tempo depending on the tempo of music they listened to immediately before playing. A related study found that people read a sentence faster or slower depending on the speaking rate of a recording they had just heard.
The results suggest that both musicians and speakers unconsciously coordinate timing to find a mutually agreeable tempo.
“It’s not that musicians and speakers perfectly imitate each other, but they get pulled in a direction to more closely match those they’re interacting with,” said Melissa Jungers, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University’s Newark campus. “It’s a type of mimicry.”
Jungers conducted the study with Caroline Palmer, professor of psychology and Shari Speer, associate professor of linguistics, both at Ohio State. Their study was published in a recent issue of the journal Cognitive Processing.
In one study, the researchers used 16 experienced adult pianists. The pianists sight-read two melodies to establish their preferred performing rate. They then alternated listening to computer-generated melodies and playing different melodies on the piano. They heard 10 melodies and played 10 melodies. The participants were led to believe they were participating in a memory test – they were given no direction about how slow or fast to play.
The melodies they heard were performed at relatively slow or relatively fast rates. When they played, the pianists were provided notations that did not include bar lines or time signatures so there would be no indication of meter or any indirect indication of a rate at which the tune should be played.
After listening to a slow melody, the pianists played their melody slower (an average of 6.8 seconds) when compared to when they had first heard the faster melody (an average of 5.3 seconds). The pianists preferred rate – the rate they played before they heard other melodies – was in between those two times, at 6.1 seconds.
The second study was designed to be as close as possible to the first study – except that the researchers examined speech rather than music. In this study, 64 native English speakers spoke 10 short sentences (6 to 7 words each). First, speakers read two sentences aloud from a computer screen to measure their preferred speaking rate. Next, speakers alternated listening to and reading sentences. In some cases, they listened to sentences spoken at a fast rate, in other cases at a slow rate. The participants were not told how fast or slow to speak – they were simply told to try to remember the sentences for a later memory test.
For 43 of the 64 speakers, they spoke faster after they heard a sentence spoken at a fast tempo and spoke slower when they heard a slower speaking delivery.
When they heard the slow speakers, their sentences averaged 1.81 seconds long, while when they heard the fast speakers their sentences averaged 1.72 seconds long. Their preferred rate of speech averaged 1.80 seconds per sentence.
In addition, this study showed that speakers were also influenced by the pattern of phrase breaks in the recordings they heard. If the recordings had the largest pause in the sentence after the verb, for example, that is where the speakers tended to put their biggest pause.
“The participants were not just following how fast the speaker talked in the recording – they were also imitating where they put the pauses in the sentences,” Jungers said. “There’s more going on here than just changing the speaking tempo.”
Speaking tempo didn’t change as much in these studies as did music tempo, Jungers noted. Part of this is probably because tempo in speaking doesn’t vary as much as it does in music. Moreover, musicians are trained to follow the tempo of musicians they are playing with, while speakers aren’t expected to do that.
Jungers said it is understandable that musicians change their tempo to match other musicians because that is part of their training. However, it is less clear why speakers would do this.
“Speakers can still understand each other even if their speaking tempos don’t match,” she said.
She said she plans future studies to look more at unscripted, casual conversation to see if speakers tend to match each other’s tempo.
This study was supported in part by the National Institutes of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation and by the Ohio State Center for Cognitive Science.
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