So I've done some research and found out about the different circadian cycles that use chemical clocks to help us keep time in the long term (hours, days, etc.). This doesn't seem to explain how we can so accurately count seconds. Musicians can count time extremely precisely in even shorter intervals than seconds. Is it a chemical clock responsible? If you could explain the whole process to me it would be great. Thanks.

  • $\begingroup$ I've nominated this question for reopening because it is clearly about counting time in the short term, whereas the duplicate marked is merely about circadian rhythms. This question explicitly differentiates itself from circadian time and is talking about time on the order of seconds. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jul 28, 2017 at 22:33
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "One mississippi, two mississippi..." $\endgroup$
    – cr0
    Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 0:35
  • $\begingroup$ There is a significant difference between (consciously) counting time, and simply being aware of it. Musicians are aware of time, but we don't count time when performing. Once a musician begins performing, the music is "alive", and the musician must keep playing in order for it to stay living. Because of this, their assessment of timing is relative, so to speak, and (fairly) easy to maintain without thinking. I would also say that the impeccable accuracy in a musicians ability to adhere to timing simply comes from their extensive practice of the (given) composition; I speak from experience. $\endgroup$
    – user22020
    Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 8:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Charles But what biologically enables musicians to do so? By practicing, they must be essentially just fine tuning whatever biological function that helps us keep time. As an analogy when riding a bike, at first we must consciously make an effort to balance. Eventually we fine tune our vestibular system to the point where we can subconsciously do it. I am look for that "vestibular system" for hearing. At least I think this is the way it works. Am I right? $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 30, 2017 at 15:19

1 Answer 1


Detection of rhythm is a separate function from general musicality, but both can be affected by the same brain damage, or they can be independently affected:

A range of rhythmic deficits has been described, including the inability to reproduce rhythmic patterns or to discriminate between them, and the inability to perform music rhythmically, or to keep time to music, including dancing in time. These deficits may occur in combination with other musical deficits, such as impaired vocal and instrumental skills ... rhythmic and metric organisation can be differentially impaired in brain damaged patients, supporting the relative independence of functions of the rhythmic system. In terms of cerebral lateralisation, Peretz and Morais [43] suggested that metric organisation may be ascribed to the right hemisphere, whilst smaller rhythmic groupings are encoded by the left hemisphere. ... Neuropsychological studies of groups of patients, however, have generally shown more variable lateralisation effects, particularly in recent research [25,36,46]

--Modelling rhythmic function in a musician post-stroke

So it seems that the detailed neuroanatomy and function of rhythm isn't completely understood, but it is a fairly specific function. One suggestion is that it's linked to language ("We conclude, then, that this effect is linked to language dominance and not handedness." -- Rhythm and dominance), but I don't know how widely this is accepted. Possibly Common neural mechanisms for explicit timing in the sub-second range. offers more insight, but I don't have access to the full article and the abstract isn't very helpful.


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