graph titled "can practice improve rhythm?"

Testing musicality- From demonstration to data analysis


This data expedition focused on biological senses, in particular, musicality. The students read and summarized four scientific articles in discussion groups to build their background knowledge when it comes to how humans and animals use pitch and rhythm in music, language, and songs. We then had each student use headphones to take a rhythm test three times and a pitch test. These scores were compiled into one document. In addition, students answered whether or not they have had prior musical experience (1 for yes, 0 for no). Students then created hypotheses for the three guiding questions and tested them in R Markdown.

This class was part of a seminar focused on sensory biology. The students had varying levels of exposure to statistics and so we focused on how to conduct an experiment, create hypotheses, and build a model and interpret its results.

  • Graduate Students: Danae Diaz and Richard J Wong
  • Sponsoring Faculty: Dr. Sönke Johnsen
  • Undergraduate Course: Biology 427S – Sensory Biology

Guiding Questions

  • Can practice improve rhythm?
  • Is there a relationship between rhythm and pitch?
  • Does musical experience lead to improves sense of pitch/rhythm?


Students were assigned four readings on different aspects of musicality: pitch and rhythm in birdsong, congenital amusia (aka tone deafness), ability to repeat pitch/rhythm depending on a subject’s first language, and the relationship between planning and temporal control of notes. The students came to class ready to engage in active discussion during the class period. If students did not complete the data analysis portion of the exercise, then they were asked to complete it for homework.

Classroom Exercise

This data expedition allowed students to conduct a sensory demonstration to collect data and analyze that data in R to support or not support the hypotheses given to them. The homework due for class was to read and digest the scientific articles assigned so that we could all come together to discuss some possible biases, shortcomings, questions, experimental designs, and hypotheses raised by the readings. This task familiarized the students with the topic, allowing for a better understanding of the research questions to be tested.

The students then ran two demos using a computer and listening device. One demo involved students listening to 26 tunes for roughly five second each and answering whether or not it was played correctly. This question was meant to be vague, as musicality, or the understanding of pitch and rhythm was hypothesized to be innate; however, this question digs deeply as to whether all of the notes are played in tune in the excerpt. This demo was conducted one time for each student. The other demo, was a rhythm test, where students were asked to tap on the space bar of a computer with a beat, then repeat the beat after the computer stopped. This test was conducted three times for each student. Finally, each student was asked whether they have had previous musical experience and to record 1 for yes and 0 for no on the recording sheet (attached).

After the demos, we discussed what hypotheses one would expect from the guiding questions prepared for them. Then, with prepared R code, students were asked to analyze the classes data and reject or accept the hypotheses based on the findings. Students were asked to send a file with all of their figures and whether or not the hypotheses were accepted as homework for the next class period.