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.
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).
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).
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 https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/16/arts/music/rite-of-spring-cools-into-a-rite-of-passage.html