THE PROCESSING OF COMPLEX, METRICALLY ambiguous rhythmic patterns, of the sort found in much popular music, remains poorly understood. We investigated listeners' abilities to perceive, process and produce complex, syncopated rhythmic patterns. Rhythmic complexity was varied along a continuum, quantified using an objective metric of syncopation suggested by Longuet-Higgins and Lee. Participants (a) tapped in time to the rhythms, (b) reproduced the same patterns given a steady pulse, and (c) recognized these patterns when replayed both immediately and after a 24-hour delay. Participants tended to reset the phase of their internally generated pulse with highly syncopated rhythms, reinterpreting or "re-hearing" the rhythm as less syncopated. High complexity in rhythmic stimuli can thus force a reorganization of their cognitive representation. Less complex rhythms were more robustly encoded than more complex syncopated rhythms in the delayed memory task. Syncopated rhythms provide a useful tool for future explorations of human rhythmic competence.
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