Every culture on this planet partakes in some form of music. What’s more, the vast majority—if not all—of these cultures will arrive at the design of a drum relatively early. The point of a drum, of course, is to establish a rhythm.
All of us seem driven to divide time up into specific, repetitive patterns. But it’s not only music, rhythms are everywhere—from our heartbeat to our breathing, blinking, chewing and the way we walk. What happens when the music we make combines with the other rhythms riddling our lives?
We know that when a groove transcends our ear-ways and wiggles it’s way into our minds, we are suddenly caressed into moving in synchronicity. If the beat is fast, it energizes us, our heartbeat speeds up and we get the desire to jump and thrash our arms about. When the music is slow we instead glide gracefully about the room, waving our hands like the conductor of an orchestra. It can influence us in such a way that we’ll push ourselves harder in a workout or relax more efficiently after a tough day.
Why does rhythm have such a remarkable effect on us? - For that, we need to peer inside the brain.
Where Does the Beat Go?
A strong rhythm, once decoded by our inner ears, travels along some neuronal pathways to our cerebellum. This area sits at the base of your brain, and is important in coordinated movement and timing.
The path that rhythm takes is different to other aspects of music, and takes place before we become aware of it. Daniel Levitin articulates this point in ‘This is your Brain on Music’:
“This emotional response to groove occurs via the ear-cerebellum-nucleus accumbens-limbic circuit rather than via the ear-auditory cortex circuit. Our response to groove is largely pre- or unconscious because it goes through the cerebellum rather than the frontal lobes.”
Your response to groove is outside your control. It comes to us from that ethereal place of intuition and the ‘gut,’ aspects of cognition we have little conscious access to.
Dancing is also something we appreciate seeing performed by other people, particularly very skilled people. People spend a lot of money to watch ballet shows, Cirque du Soleil, and other synchronized dances.
When we watch others dance, the movement areas within our brain also fire up. We don’t necessarily get up and perform the same action, but we are mentally reenacting it. We are also planning and predicting how we expect the dancer to move, and the success/failure interplay of unpredictability is something we enjoy—as we might see from sports, film, games, gambling, and of course the music itself.
A few recent studies have found more interesting insights into dancing. For instance, some of the brain regions active when we perceive motion are also active when we perceive music. One study argued that our cognitive predilection for music may even have evolved from an ability to glean emotion from motion.
Thalia Wheatley and Beau Sievers designed a computer program that tasked participants of a study with adjusting either the shape and movement patterns of a ball, or the dimensions of a piano melody, in order to align it with an emotion. For example, redesigning a bouncing ball to represent angry, or a piano track for sad.
Importantly, the options (which were sliders) for manipulating the sound or ball were closely related—rate set how many beat/bounces per minute; smoothness added spikes to the ball and dissonance to the music; jitter determined predictability, and so on.
What they found was that the positions of these sliders remained the same for each emotion, regardless if it was the music version or the ball. The music and bouncing ball shared a strong connection, suggesting that music and motion do too. What’s more, the researchers tested this on westerners and on the inhabitants of the secluded village of L’ak, in Cambodia, where the results were also very similar. You can listen to some of the results here.
While this doesn’t offer us all the answers, it clearly highlights the ubiquitous and intimate link between music, motion, and emotion.
Written by: Sam Brinson
Sam is a writer and researcher with interests in the brain, personal development, and creative expression. He is currently writing a book on developing better learning habits—'Connecting the Dots.' You can follow him on Twitter here.