Editors' ChoiceNeuroscience

We Got the Beat

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Science Translational Medicine  23 Jan 2013:
Vol. 5, Issue 169, pp. 169ec16
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3005693

From cutting a rug to tapping your toe to a song on the radio, it’s clear that movement is intricately associated with the experience of music; yet, the precise relationship between music and movement is unknown. Research with infants and neonates has established a shared structure between music and movement. For example, infants move with rhythm and prefer sounds with pattern to those without. Because these perceptions of a beat and preferences for certain metric patterns are observed early in life, they are presumed to be universal. However, these studies in infants did not examine whether such predispositions survive into adulthood after many years of being exposed to culture-specific influences. Now, Sievers et al. aimed to examine the universality of beat in adults and across cultures.

The authors leveraged the observation that both music and movement can be used to express emotion and developed an empirical method of comparing the structure of emotional expressions during music and movement. They then tested this structure in two different settings—the United States and a tribal village in northeastern Cambodia—to determine whether we maintain our predisposition to relate music and movement in particular ways, or whether these relationships are culturally defined. Using a computer program to generate matching examples of music and movement from a single set of features including rate, jitter (regularity of rate), direction, step size, and dissonance/visual spikiness, these authors found that each of five emotions tested was represented by a specific combination of features, that each combination expressed the same emotion in both music and movement, and that the common structure between music and movement was evident within and across cultures.

The universality and interaction between music and movement may help us understand our evolutionary origins. For example, the results of this study suggest that musical expression may be derived from an evolutionary association between emotion and human dynamics. Although there may be other ways to understand musical expression across cultures, using other modalities that demonstrate a host of other emotions not represented here, this research raises the intriguing possibility that music forms and strengthens social bonds and make us more evolutionarily fit. Shall we dance?

B. Sievers et al., Music and movement share a dynamic structure that supports universal expression of emotion. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110, 70–75 (2013). [Abstract]

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