Last Friday, we had the incredible opportunity to be a part of Paris’ Fête de la Musique, a celebration of music in all its forms. Starting in the evening and lasting well into the next morning, the festival brings thousands of musicians to hundreds of bars, clubs, courtyards, and street corners in all twenty of the arrondissements of the city. Everyone crowds the streets to celebrate, and there is music wherever you turn; oftentimes musicians are so close that you can actually hear multiple performances simultaneously. As the night went on, we found ourselves immersed in an environment filled with new friends, loud music, and lots of dancing. We danced alongside the Parisians to club electronica, gritty rock, solo vocals, drum circles, and even American pop. The instinct to move in synchrony with the music was not only consistent across genres, but also ubiquitous among individuals. This final post of our trip aims to explore the profound and fascinating link between dancing and music.
One prominent theory to explain movement coordinated with music suggests that this type of synchronized movement simulates music production itself, which may have evolved as a method of social bonding (Levitin and Tirovolas, 2009). The importance of music as a type of honest, yet generalized, form of communication may have lead to activation of reward systems in the brain upon not only personal production of music, but imitating the production of music present in the environment. I personally tend to disagree with this hypothesis. Though I find actual production of music to be the most enjoyable of all, I do not necessarily feel that fingering along accurately to a piano lick is any more rewarding than flailing my entire body to the beat. Though my own personal experiences prove nothing, this theory of pleasure being derived from musical imitation tends to draw skepticism in literature on the topic, as it is not even clear that music is an evolutionary adaptation in the first place.
More recent research, however, takes a different approach to the question. Testing of both musicians and non-musicians suggests that moving to a beat actually enhances perception of the metrical structure (Su and Pöppel, 2012). The experiment that demonstrated this was actually fairly straightforward. Test subjects listened to rhythmic excerpts that maintained a constant tempo throughout and were instructed either to move to the music (e.g. foot-tapping, head-nodding, or body-swaying) or were told to sit still while they listened. Participants were also told to indicate what they felt to be the beat of the music by tapping their finger on the table in front of them. Once the music began, the researchers would occasionally silence the music at random on key beats, though subjects were instructed to continue tapping during these “dropped” beats. The accuracy of the placement of the dropped beat and overall consistency of tapping throughout the sequence were measured and compared between test groups, and researchers found significant improvements in both measures when the subjects were moving versus remaining still. Interestingly, this finding held true regardless of what the consistent tempo was. Whether at 60 beats per minute (the tempo of a very slow ballad) or at 210 bpm (well above the vast majority of music), synchronized movement enhanced understanding of the rhythmic structure.
Further characterization of movement-induced enhancement of beat perception found that this effect is only true of auditory stimuli, and in fact, movement impairs timing extraction in equivalent visual tasks (Iordanescu et al., 2013). This finding implies that synchronized movement may somehow bear a particularly special connection to our interpretation of sound. Could the fun of dancing arise from its ability to increase our sensitivity to rhythmic patterns? That may be what the research suggests. From soon after birth, humans have an innate desire for information and, quickly thereafter, an insatiable need to categorize (Perlovsky, 2010). This ability and, in fact, craving to classify our world has been referred to as the “knowledge instinct,” and this may explain why we so readily appreciate a more intensified and obvious pattern in our aural environment.
All of the rhetorical questions, personal musings, and references to psychological theory in this post are a testament to the real conclusion to this discussion: nobody actually knows why we like dancing so much. Indirect experiments and conveniently intuitive theories of selective pressure can only provide so much insight into the issue; so while science works on solving this highly urgent question, just enjoy the music and keep on dancing.
Iordanescu L, Grabowecky M, Suzuki S (2013) Action enhances auditory but not visual temporal sensitivity. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 20: 108-114.
Levitin DJ, Tirovolas AK (2009) Current advances in the cognitive neuroscience of music. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1156: 211-231.
Perlovsky L (2010) Musical emotions: functions, origins, evolution. Physics of Life Reviews 7: 2-27.
Su YH, Pöppel E (2012) Body movement enhances the extraction of temporal structures in auditory sequences. Psychological Research 76: 373-382.