Author Archives: Ben Furman

Riots at the Rite- and in the Brain?

There are few things more important in my life than music.  Its propensity to evoke emotion, inspire, and educate are, in my opinion, unparalleled compared to any other art form.  I started playing music at six years old, and I cannot think of something that has shaped my development as fundamentally as music has.  For me, learning certain pieces, such as Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat Major for piano or Wieniawski’s Second Violin Concerto in D Minor, represents memorable steps in my growth as both a musician as a person.  Another work that comes to mind when I think of pieces which have contributed to growth is Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird.  Composed as a score for a ballet of the same name, Firebird is the first of three momentous ballet scores by Stravinsky, the other two being Petrushka and the iconic Rite of Spring.  These ballets, especially Firebird and Rite of Spring are some of the most notable works of 20th-century music if not of music in its entirety.  These works burst onto the music scene and sent shockwaves throughout the artistic world, as they are some of the first, and most notable, pieces containing the jarring atonality and complex polyrhythms that have come to define the music of the early 20th century.  It was not only the music that was cutting edge but also the ballets.  Like the music, the choreography, especially Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography for The Rite of Spring, was extremely avant-garde, as it dispelled of traditional ballet movements and ushered in primitive hops and jumps.

A still image from The Rite of Spring’s iconic Sacrificial Dance (image courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts)

Choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

However, despite the acclaim these pieces have since garnered, they were not received particularly well upon their premiere.  In fact, the premiere of The Rite of Spring has become infamous for the alleged riots that occurred during its first performance.  Although accounts of the riots at The Rite are varied in intensity with some accounts stating that audience members tore their seats out of the theatre and others stating there was merely angry murmuring and yelling from the audience, it is unquestionable that the performance was met with extreme disgust from the audience (Taruskin, 2012).

Composer Igor Stravinsky (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

To this day, it baffles me how something as seemingly innocuous as attending a ballet could incite such visceral reactions.  However, research from the Watching Dance Project, a group comprising of researchers from four UK universities, is seeking to examine just that.  In a 2016 paper entitled Spectators’ Aesthetic Experience of Sound and Movement in Dance Performance: A Transdisciplinary Investigation, researchers investigated how an audience’s experience of sound and movement impacted their perception of the performance (Reason et al., 2016).  To do this, the researchers paired a short dance production with three different soundscapes: J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C Minor, an ambient noise track, and an electronic music composition by Ian Wallman (Reason et al., 2016).  Subject’s reactions to the different music accompanying the dance were analyzed both qualitatively, through interviews and discussions, and quantitatively, via fMRI analyses (Reason et al., 2016).

The study found that audience member’s reactions to the dance performance were effected by different musical backings (Reason et al., 2016).  One subject, called David, stated, “different backing music or lack of music inspired different emotions at each time … you change the music, you don’t change the dance, you repeat the dance, and it’s got a totally different emotional effect” (Reason et al., 2016).  In addition to evoking different emotional responses, different musical backing tracks led to audience members perceiving identical performances differently (Reason et al., 2016).  A common theme in discussions post-performance was how the performance paired with the Bach concerto seemed more beautiful and flowing, while during the ambient noise and electronic noise repetitions, participants noted the dance seemed more intense and uncomfortable (Reason et al., 2016).

Interestingly, despite the apparent differences in perception of the dance with different musical backing, the fMRI data showed a large amount of overlap in brain regions active during all performances (Reason et al., 2016).   Bilaterally, in both visual and auditory cortex, fMRI data showed that activity was highly synchronized (Reason et al., 2016).  The four areas with the most evident overlap were the parietal cortex, the dorsal premotor cortex, and the ventral premotor cortex, and the superior temporal gyrus (Reason et al., 2016).  However, not all brain activity was synchronized across the three different performances.  During the Bach-accompanied performance, regions in the right cuneus, left lingual gyrus, cerebellum, and superior temporal gyrus, exhibited increased activation in comparison to the other performances (Reason et al., 2016).  During the ambient noise-accompanied performance, there was increased activation in multiple areas including Brodmann areas 7, 17, 18, 19, 22, 37, and 41 (Reason et al., 2016).

fMRI data showing areas of neural activation in audience members when viewing the dance performance accompanied by Bach (yellow) as opposed to the ambient track (purple). Brown= areas of overlapping activation. (Reason et al., 2016)

Many of the cortical areas that showed increased activation during the ambient-accompanied performance are associated with visual, auditory, and somatosensory processing (Reason et al., 2016).  Researchers hypothesize that this could be due to the synchronicity between the sounds of the ambient track (dancer’s breaths and footfalls) and the motion of their bodies (Reason et al., 2016).  Researchers also believe these findings could serve as preliminary data to support the hypothesis that auditory and visual perceptions of dance can influence one’s aesthetic perception of a performance (Reason et al., 2016).

The research presented by the Watching Dance Project in this research study showcases some interesting differences in an audience member’s perception of a dance performance when accompanied by different musical backing both in terms of personal experience and neural activity.  However, there is more research to be done, as fMRI studies face inherent limitations due to the technique’s relatively poor spatial resolution.  Perhaps these data presented by the Watching Dance Project researchers can serve to elucidate why Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiere induced such infamous riots.  I for one will definitely keep tabs on this group’s research, as I find their intersectional approach to music, dance, and the brain fascinating.




Reason, M., Jola, C., Kay, R., Reynolds, D., Kauppi, J., Grobras, M., … Pollick, F. E. (2016). Spectators’ aesthetic experience of sound and movement in dance performance: A transdisciplinary investigation. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10(1), 42-55. doi:10.1037/a0040032

Taruskin, R. (2012, September 14). ‘Rite of Spring? Cools Into a Rite of Passage. Retrieved from



The World Cup.  These three words are arguably the most popular in the world – well, maybe it’s “I love you”, but “The World Cup” is probably a close second.  Every four years, the most elite national soccer teams assemble to partake in a tournament viewed by billions worldwide.  It’s an event of immense magnitude, immeasurable spectacle, and the highest stakes in sports.  This year, the FIFA Women’s World Cup is being hosted by France, with multiple games in Paris!  Seeing as I live in the United States, where we haven’t yet fully embraced the beautiful game, it is a rare occurrence to attend high level soccer matches; so, a few days ago, when our class had the unbelievable experience of attending a group-stage match in the 2019 Women’s World Cup between the United States of America and Chile, I was over-the-moon excited.

Faces painted, ready for the game!!

The game did not disappoint, the United States dominated Chile, especially in the first half where they scored three goals, including a super-strike from veteran Carli Lloyd.  However, despite the beat down imposed upon the Chileans, the atmosphere remained lively.  Thunderous chants of “Chi-Chi-Chi Le-Le-Le, ¡Viva Chile!” clashed with shouts of “USA! USA! USA!” for the entire 90 minutes, and with every goal scored by the United States women, the thrill of ensuing victory became more intensely expressed on the players’ faces.

Amazing view to watch the United States take on Chile in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup

While the triumphant screams, hugs between teammates, and big smiles made their emotions evident on the surface, a more complicated biological phenomenon was occurring inside the bodies of the athletes.  In a recent study published in 2015, Drs. Kathleen Casto and David Edwards examined how levels of certain hormones fluctuated during different stages of competition in female soccer players (Casto and Edward, 2015).  Competition, at its heart, is a contest for social status driven by a desire to be superior to an opponent (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  This desire seems to be heavily linked with the neuroendocrine system – a physiological system in which the central nervous system regulates hormone production (Martin, 2001) –  and with three hormones in particular: testosterone, cortisol, and estradiol (Casto and Edward, 2015).  Both testosterone (Carré and Olmstead, 2015) and estradiol (Stanton and Schultheiss, 2007) are related with dominance motivation and aggressive behavior, while cortisol is related with stress (Dickerson and Kemeny, 2004).

This study, conducted by Emory University researchers, analyzed salivary levels of testosterone, cortisol, and estradiol from the Emory University varsity women’s soccer team in five conditions: a baseline condition (three days before a match), before warming up for a match, shortly before the beginning of the match, immediately after the match, and 30 minutes after the match (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  In addition to comparing hormone levels during different parts of the match, levels during both a home game and an away game were analyzed to investigate whether playing in front of an opposing crowd influenced hormone levels (Casto and Edwards, 2015).

A figure depicting the change in hormone levels during different stages of a soccer match (Casto and Edwards, 2016)

When analyzing testosterone levels, the researchers found no significant difference between the athlete’s baseline levels and their levels before warming up (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  However, testosterone levels after completing a warm-up rose 22% from levels before the warm-up (p<0.001) during a home game and 32% (p<0.001) during an away game (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  Immediately following the conclusion of the game, testosterone levels were 19% (p=0.046) higher than during warm-ups at a home game and 18% (p=0.003) higher during an away game (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  30 minutes after the game’s conclusion, testosterone levels dropped 16% for a home game (p<0.001) and 26% for an away game(p<0.001) (Casto and Edwards, 2015).

Like testosterone levels, cortisol levels also displayed variation during different stages of competition.  However, whereas testosterone levels continuously rose from before a warm-up to immediately after competition, cortisol levels were significantly elevated prior to warming up but did not significantly change after a warm-up (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  Cortisol levels peaked immediately after the end of the match, where they were elevated 142% (p=0.001) after a warm-up during a home game and 131% after an away game (p=0.002) (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  30 minutes after a match’s end there were no significant changes in cortisol levels (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  I, for one, find this cortisol data especially surprising because, when I used to play sports, I remember feeling the most stressed immediately before a game, not during it, and, as cortisol is a stress hormone, I would have expected cortisol levels to be at their peak immediately preceding a game.  Estradiol also fluctuated throughout stages of competition, as its levels significantly increased both before and during a warmup (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  However, immediately after competition, estradiol levels significantly decreased and did not show any significant changes 30 minutes after the game (Casto and Edwards, 2015).

Interestingly, when this study statistically compared hormone levels during a home game to those during an away game, there were no statistical differences (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  Maybe home-field advantage is not that big of a deal after all.  Perhaps most surprising to me about this study though, was that the data did not show any significant differences in hormone levels when either winning or losing (Casto and Edwards, 2015).  Another measurement I think the study could have taken for a potentially more in-depth analysis is hormone levels at half-time.  At half-time, players can rest for a few minutes to catch their breath, but, while resting, are getting coached by the manager to make adjustments in preparation for the second half.  Even though the players’ bodies are resting, their brains are still working hard in anticipation of the rest of the game, so it would be pertinent to study hormone levels at half-time.

Ultimately, the research by Casto and Edwards brings to light some fascinating and surprising conclusions about the neuroendocrine system’s activity during physical competition.  Now that I’ve learned a bit more about hormone fluctuation in athletes, I wonder how hormone levels in fans, such as myself, would change while watching a match.





Carré, J., & Olmstead, N. (2015). Social neuroendocrinology of human aggression: Examining the role of competition-induced testosterone dynamics. Neuroscience, 286, 171-186. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2014.11.029

Casto, K. V., & Edwards, D. A. (2015). Before, During, and After: How Phases of Competition Differentially Affect Testosterone, Cortisol, and Estradiol Levels in Women Athletes. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, 2(1), 11-25. doi:10.1007/s40750-015-0028-2

Martin, J. V. (2001). Neuroendocrinology. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International encyclopedia of the social and behavioral sciences (pp. 10585-10588). Retrieved from

Stanton, S. J., & Schultheiss, O. C. (2007). Basal and dynamic relationships between implicit power motivation and estradiol in women. Hormones and Behavior, 52(5), 571-580. doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2007.07.002