The Art of Perceiving Musical Patterns

Posted in Learn | Last Updated on June 3, 2019

When you refine music to its most basic foundation, it’s nothing but patterns of rhythms and pitches organized across time.

The way you perceive these musical patterns is essential to the way you perform.

The Big Picture of Musical Patterns

Understanding music boils down to identifying different patterns and knowing what those patterns mean.

The difference between a quarter note and an eighth note is one beam. The difference between a quarter note and a sixteenth note is two beams. When you create combinations of these different note values, you create different patterns (both visually and audibly).

This is a basic principle of music theory, but what’s interesting is the fact that the way you perceive these patterns can influence the way that you perform them.

The Psychology of Perceptual Organization

If we take a closer look at psychology study which is dealing with cognitive psychology and the effects of stress on performance and memory, we will see that it explored whether or not the perceptual organization can influence the performance of a rhythmic passage. (Additional reading: Here is a recent study from MIT on How the brain perceives rhythm)

In the study, the participants completed two rhythmic tasks.

Both tasks were the same rhythmic passage but presented in a way that caused the participants to perceive them differently from one another.

In Task 1, participants were asked to play six measures of 16th notes in 4/4 time. In Task 2, participants were asked to play six measures of 32nd notes in 2/4 time at half the tempo of the first task.

As noted before, both tasks were rhythmically identical but were presented in a way that caused the participants to perceive them differently.

So what happened?

Well, some remarkable things.

For starters, participants played Task 2 more accurately than Task 1 (calculated with a Beatnik Rhythm Analyzer).

In addition, participants were able to play Task 2 significantly faster than Task 1.

Pretty interesting, right?

A simple adjustment in the way the participants perceptually organized the rhythmic passage allowed them to play the passage faster and more accurately.

Now, why does this happen?

Perceiving Small Patterns vs. Perceiving Large Patterns

Small patterns can be compared to fine details: there are many of them and they’re typically more involved or more intricate than larger patterns.

Large patterns can be compared to the big picture: they’re an overview or summary of all the small patterns contained within.

Small patterns require more brain power to process because there are more details to account for.

Large patterns, on the other hand, require less brain power because they are the highlights or overview of all the smaller patterns.

In the case of the study, Task 1 (the 16th note passage) was the equivalent of small patterns because there were 4 beats in a measure. Therefore, when tempos increased, participants struggled to keep up with all four beats passing by.

Task 2 on the other hand (the 32nd note passage in 2/4 time) was the equivalent of a large pattern because there were only 2 beats in a measure. When tempos increased, participants only had to focus on two primary pulses per measure instead of four.

We hypothesized that by simplifying the pattern from a 4 beat cycle to a 2 beat cycle, the brain had less to process and therefore felt less frantic for a longer period of times as the tempos increased. We believe this translated to the body of the participant as well causing the participant to feel more relaxed at faster tempos in the 2 beat cycle (large patterns) vs. the 4 beat cycle (small pattern).

It may seem weird, but it’s really not.

Perception influences a lot of things in your daily life – your brain just does it automatically without you thinking about it.

The Gestalt Principles of Perception

That principles describe the brain’s organization of sensory information into meaningful units and patterns.

In other words, the brain often takes fragments of information and pieces them together to identify a larger pattern that it can make sense of.

For example, there’s not actually a 3D cube drawn in the picture below. Your brain simply sums up all of the smaller patterns into one larger pattern that it can relate to. Thus, your brain perceives the image as one 3D cube instead of eight individual circles with lines cut out.

How the Perceptual Organization of Musical Patterns Affects Your Playing

Your brain is smart.

Really smart.

It is constantly analyzing sensory input and likes to sum things up into convenient packages that make sense.

Therefore, when you perceive a musical passage as being a lot of smaller patterns, it’s going to require your brain to do more work causing it to slow down a bit.

If you take the same package and perceive it as a larger pattern (through halftime pulses, longer phrases, etc.), you simplify the pattern for your brain allowing you to stay more relaxed and devote more attention towards things like tone quality, execution, and phrasing.


Your brain likes to process larger patterns because it can make more sense of them with less effort. By adjusting the perceptual organization of rhythmic passages to process larger patterns, you may be able to improve the overall performance of the passage.