Non-human animals detect the rhythmic structure of a familiar tune


The musical motives of a song emerge from the temporal arrangement of discrete tones. These tones normally have few durational values, and are organized in structured groups to create metrical patterns. In the present study we show that the ability to detect the rhythmic structure of a song, while ignoring surface changes, is also present in other species. We familiarized rats (Rattus norvegicus) with an excerpt of the Happy Birthday song. During test, we presented the animals with (i) the same excerpt of the familiarization, (ii) a constant-pitch version of the excerpt that reduced melodic intervals to only one tone (i.e., isotonic) but preserved rhythmic structure, and (iii) a rhythmically scrambled version of the excerpt that preserved the melodic intervals. The animals discriminated the rhythmically scrambled version from the versions that preserved the original rhythm. This demonstrates that rats were sensitive to at least some parts of the rhythmic structure of the tune. Together with previous findings, the present set of results suggests that the emergence of rhythmic musical universals might be based on principles shared with other species.

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We would like to thank Aina Viles Sans for her careful help with the rats and Paola Crespo Bojorque for her insights into the familiarization procedure.

Ethics approval

All experimental procedures were approved by the ethics committee from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra and the Generalitat de Catalunya (protocol number 9068).

Data accessibility

The data supporting this article have been included as Online Supplementary Material.

Open Practices Statement

The data and materials for the experiment are available as Online Supplementary Materials, and the experiment was not preregistered.


This work was supported by a grant from the BIAL foundation (reference 13/18) and by the Spanish Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad (MEC) FPI grant BES-2014-070547.

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ACM and JMT designed the study. ACM ran the experiment and analyzed the data. ACM and JMT wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Alexandre Celma-Miralles.

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Celma-Miralles, A., Toro, J.M. Non-human animals detect the rhythmic structure of a familiar tune. Psychon Bull Rev 27, 694–699 (2020).

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  • Temporal perception
  • Song discrimination
  • Rhythm
  • Comparative cognition
  • Rats