This article is published through our Regional Reporter Program. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Now initiative.
How are music and movement connected in our brains? What kind of music makes us want to move? How does moving in unison impact our relationships? These are the types of questions researchers at McMaster University are working to answer in their LIVELab performance and research space, at the annual NeuroMusic Conference and through ongoing studies that explore the cognitive relationship between music and our bodies. The 18th annual conference, themed “Developmental Disorders and Music,” took place on Nov. 19.
Tessa Perkins Deneault spoke individually with Laurel Trainor, director of McMaster University’s LIVELab and Institute for Music and the Mind; Daniel Cameron, post-doctoral fellow at the LIVELab; and Elizabeth Phillips, a graduate student in McMaster’s NeuroArts Lab. The following article has been edited together from these conversations.
Tessa Perkins Deneault: I’m interested in the connection between music and dance in the brain. Can you tell me a bit about your research focus and work in this area?
Elizabeth Phillips: A lot of my work so far has been focused on the vocal evolution theory of music as it relates to speech and communication more generally, but there is a gestural theory of the evolution of music, which takes the stance that music itself evolved from dance and gesture – our need to have timing and to do percussion, and to create sounds through the movement of our body. Like, if you stomp, that’s dance – but it’s creating music; you’re creating percussion music.
The sort of music that you get out of dance is probably the oldest evolutionary type of music. You see this in a lot of cultures worldwide that still have very preserved traditions of music and dance that are deeply intertwined. I think, in an evolutionary sense, music and dance are not really different things, and traditionally they are very deeply intertwined. It comes down to how we’re doing complex sequencing of motor patterns and of emotional signals. They’re two channels that we’ve developed into highly artistic things because we’re social creatures and we need to live in a community.
It’s kind of unfortunate that as we’ve progressed as a species, we’ve developed these ideas that they’re separate, first of all, and the idea is that you have to be an expert at it in order to do it, instead of saying, ‘Everyone sings, everyone dances; this is a basic human capability,’ I think you lose something with that, and you lose a lot of the community and emotional communication.
Daniel Cameron: I’m a drummer by training, and I’ve always been interested, in retrospect, in what’s going on with rhythms. Why do we like them? What makes us want to move? Why do some rhythms give us this pleasurable urge that we want to move along when we hear them? I’m not a dance specialist per se, but I’m interested in movement to music, musical movement. Dance tends to be culturally loaded in our society; it tends to be that you need professional training, or you’ve had a couple drinks at the wedding and you finally let loose on the dance floor. But across the world, you see cultures where it’s part of music, it’s part of group rituals.
From a scientific or biological perspective, why would we move along or want to move along to music? We think of music as mostly an auditory thing. We hear sequences of sound and their aesthetic. Why should we want to move to that? When we hear people talking, we might engage with it, but it’s not like we want to dance along to it. Or if we read a book, it doesn’t make us want to dance. So why should this sound source do that? We don’t know the full answer to that, and there are different ways of looking at the question. There are some researchers who are interested in the evolutionary adaptive value of music and dance and the idea that music and movement are really good for bonding us to one another in a group. If we’re moving together and synchronizing our movements with the people around us, we tend to feel more connected with them and part of the same group, so the idea is: that maybe makes us more likely to care about one another and work together.
I’m involved in some different research that is getting at this. In one study, we had an electronic dance music [EDM] concert, and we had special low frequency speakers that we turned on and off every two and a half minutes. People couldn’t tell when they were on, and we used motion capture cameras around the room to track people’s movements. We found that people moved on average 12 per cent more when these low frequency speakers were on. We weren’t surprised because we knew there was an association between low frequency bass and dancing, and we know from anecdotal reports that people who are in the EDM community talk about feeling the bass and that it’s immersive, a bodily sensation that makes you want to dance and lose yourself in the music.
There’s something about bass that gets our movement system more timed up and ready to go. We think this has to do with other sensory systems, not just our sound system but our tactile system where we can feel low frequencies. If you stand really close to a speaker at a concert, you can sometimes feel it shaking, and our vestibular system, which is our sense of balance, our inner ear structures, both of those systems can be stimulated a little bit by very low frequency sound. We know that those systems have a strong connection to our movement system, so those are picking up on the low frequencies and driving our movement system even more.
TPD: It’s also interesting what you were saying about feeling the music – when there’s so much bass that you can actually feel it in your body. I don’t know if there’s something about that sensation that makes us want to move. I’ve also heard that the bass is like the heartbeat, so that’s why we want to move to it. I don’t know if that’s just a myth.
DC: There are theories about this. I have a colleague who is very interested in rhythm perception; he’s very confident that the heartbeat probably is part of it. But also, before we’re born, we’re in our mother’s body, and humans are bipedal: we walk one, two, one, two – that might be why we tend to have rhythms that have a one-two movement to them musically. We tend to like that grouping more than a triplet-based grouping where there’s three notes per beat. That’s just an idea that people put out there; I don’t know that I totally buy that. But there are ideas around this that we’re informed by the rhythmic environment before we’re born, this low frequency environment, because you’re in liquid, in an enclosed space, and it’s a very tactile environment and it’s like a filter for sound. Even your mother’s voice, it’s the low frequencies that you can hear. These things might be related, and we’re kind of scratching the surface.
TPD: Can you tell me a bit about the NeuroMusic Conference and some of your work exploring the connections between music and movement?
Laurel Trainor: This was our 18th annual conference. Every year, we have a theme, and several times we’ve had topics related to movement and dance. I think people often think about music as if it’s just an auditory thing, but in fact, for many, many different levels, music and movement are really intimately connected. For example, we know that when we hear music, it makes us want to move, and across every culture that we know, music is often accompanied by dance. Or you might say dance is often accompanied by music, or perhaps the two really co-occur.
On the neural level, many studies now show that when people aren’t moving and they’re just listening to music, it activates motor areas of their brain. So why would that be? One possibility is that the music system generates rhythms and then it passes that along to the motor system so you can synchronize to the rhythms. There’s more and more evidence now that it’s actually bidirectional: not only are there connections from auditory areas to motor areas, but there are also many connections back from motor areas to auditory areas. We now have evidence that, in fact, the auditory system uses the motor system to do timing.
One of the critical things that happens with rhythmic patterns in dance and music is temporal regularity. In music, it has a strong beat usually, or it can have a loose beat. It’s the same in dance: you can have dances that are very tightly timed, where the beat is regular, and you can also have dances where the beat is irregular, but it still has this temporal patterning across time. What a beat does, and temporal pattern in general, is it allows us to predict the future. Because of its regularity, we can predict when the next beat is going to happen. All of those things tell us about the structure of the incoming input, whether it’s executing a dance, watching a dance or listening to music.
EP: When I was involved with planning the NeuroMusic concert and conference more generally last year, we wanted to talk about dance because it seemed like such a pertinent topic for the conference, which was focused on synchrony that year. That’s how our research project about the social co-ordination of music and dance came into being. I think Henry Daniel had been interested in working with the LIVELab for several years, and he’s very fascinated with deep diving into dance and the mechanisms of it.
TPD: What was the process like for The Social Co-Ordination of Music and Dance research study?
EP: We were doing a lot of Zoom calls with a large team of people trying to talk about what we wanted the study itself to look like. Once we had the constraints of that figured out, we could talk with Henry about the choreography and tell him, ‘We want it to be about this long; can you limit how much floorwork there is in it?’ – details like that. He prepared the choreography videos to be sent to the dancers because they were in different cities. Then the dancers had a while to learn the choreography. I think it was a month or so later that we sent them music. Emily Wood is a PhD student here at McMaster, and she was composing the music to be very carefully controlled as part of our study.
There were a couple questions that we were interested in: we wanted to know how different music would affect how dancers were synchronizing with each other. We had them dance without music, with a musical condition that was more sparse and then a musical condition that was more dense. The hypothesis was that the dense musical condition would lead to greater synchrony between the dancers and also maybe a greater sense of flow or enjoyment of the piece. Because the more you subdivide a beat, the more it’s easy to predict the exact timing of any one event because they’re closer together. We had them dance those three musical conditions, and then there was also an interpersonal entrainment condition. We had each of the dancers dance all three musical conditions, and then they danced all three musical conditions as a duet and then again switching positions onstage. On the third day, we looked at how mutual entrainment and mutually synchronizing versus external entrainment and synchronizing to something fixed might differ. For just one musical condition, we brought them back and we had them dance to a projected video of their own solo, and then the other person’s solo. We wanted to see how synchrony would change when they’re dancing with somebody who’s actually onstage with them versus when they’re dancing with themselves who they’ve never danced with before. Then we had to do a lot of the data analysis, and we had a few weeks to try to put together some analysis to have preliminary results for the conference.
TPD: I’m curious about Henry’s process with the choreography. How controlled was it, or what kind of restrictions or guidelines was he given for the study?
EP: We gave him a length, and I think we said that there would be some sort of mood shift in the middle so that we could have an A and B section in the dance. We wanted it to be appropriate for two people and we told him to limit floorwork somewhat, which was just a consideration for the motion capture markers because the markers need to be able to be seen by the 3D cameras.
Trying to decide where we wanted to put the markers was another question when we were designing this. We knew we wanted to track the head because it’s quite easy to do, and we ended up going with shoulders, sternum, wrists, ankles, head and right on the abdomen, the diaphragm. We added the diaphragm last-minute because someone who had worked with dancers before on our team mentioned that in a lot of dance theory, the idea is that you move from your core first (all movement initiates from your core), so we can track that and see if those abdomen markers are actually the seed for a lot of movement.
TPD: What are your plans now for this data?
EP: We’re interested in how the dancer is different between no music, sparse music and dense music. That’s the independent variable: those three levels of music. And one dependent variable is: are they synchronized with each other for any particular points? Then there’s another more complicated measure about information flow, which is more about: can the movement of one person predict the movement of the other person? Are there leader-follower dynamics going on? Is there mutual entrainment between these two points (the way that this person moves will then affect later how this person moves)? We would look at those two things across no music, sparse music and dense music, and then with the other conditions. We want to see how those two dependent measures differ when they’re dancing with themselves or the other person externally versus having the other person live onstage with them. Once we finish some analysis of that and present it to the public, we’ll be able to make the entire data set open-access so that you can do more fine-grained analysis like: is the movement starting from the core, or are hands more easily synchronized than feet or vice versa?
TPD: Thinking about the way that we separate dance and music in western culture, do you have any thoughts about that or why that is? What are the disadvantages of us thinking about it in that way?
LT: It’s interesting that, at least in classical music concerts, it’s sort of frowned upon to move too much to the music – that’s pretty unusual across cultures. In most cultures, people freely move to the music, whereas, in some circumstances, we suppress that. For anyone who’s been to an electronic dance music concert, that’s not true. We’re encouraged to dance and move in many situations, but not all. Certainly, western classical music is extremely demanding on the musicians because we’ve developed these high-level experts that we all want to go and hear. That level of expertise, maybe it’s developed some kind of mystical aura about it, so people go and revere it rather than enjoy moving along to the music.
TPD: I suppose it’s seen as more respectful to just sit and listen and give your full attention to the music.
LT: That’s certainly what it’s come to be. Exactly how we got there, I’m not sure. Using our motion capture equipment, we have measured people’s responses, particularly their head movement, at classical concerts, and they’re not still. Even though we’re not supposed to move a lot, people still do move in response to the music. And their movements change depending on what they’re hearing. We’ve measured movements in musicians including classical string quartets and jazz musicians, who tend to move more. Musicians in the western classical tradition are often taught not to move too much. But when you watch them, they sway their bodies. They obviously have to make motor movements to play their instrument, but in addition to those, they also make broader movements, more whole-body movement. One of the ways that they communicate with each other is through those sort of gestures; they’re usually not even aware that they’re making these gestures. Similarly, if two dancers are dancing together, they have to co-ordinate with each other, which involves anticipation because if you’re waiting to see what the other dancer does, it’s too late, you won’t be with them. You have to constantly be anticipating, which is probably impossible unless there’s some kind of temporal structure. The beat gives you this temporal structure so you can predict, at least in the short term, what is likely to happen.
TPD: Have you looked into communication between musicians and dancers, for example, if there’s live music onstage?
LT: We haven’t yet, but we’re talking about it. We have lots of post-docs and students interested in working on this area of research. So far, we’ve only been looking at communication between dancers or between musicians, but in many cultures, the two always seem to go together. For most of human history, there was no recorded music, so the musicians were also able to change how they were playing in response to the dancer. I think people would imagine the dancer has to be with the music, and at least in the West that would be the way we think about it. But I suspect that in most cultures it’s bidirectional.
DC: There’s been this experiment I’ve wanted to do for a long time involving an improvised performance of a drummer and a dancer. Improvisation is interesting, musicians doing it alone or dancers doing it amongst each other, but there’s something so mind-boggling, if you think about it, that the sounds I’m making are changing the movements you want to make, and if I’m watching that, that’s changing what kind of rhythms and sounds I make. It becomes this very multimodal, rich experience that we’re working on together. I think there’s a ton to explore and to better understand about humans and the brain from dancers.
TPD: Talking about dance and music being interconnected in many cultures reminds me of some Indigenous dance performances I’ve seen; often a song and a dance are one and the same, and one is not performed without the other. I wonder if you’ve done work with any Indigenous nations or if that’s something you’re thinking about.
LT: We’ve had Indigenous artists play in the LIVELab, but until now we haven’t really done extensive research. Now we have a grant to work with Six Nations, and our idea is to bring different cultures together. One of the amazing things about when people move together, any situation where people are moving in synchrony, afterwards, they rate each other as liking each other more and they trust each other more. If you give them a co-operative game, where they can choose to compete or to co-operate, they will co-operate more compared to a parallel situation where they’re not moving in synchrony. Synchrony here is defined quite loosely; it doesn’t have to be the exact same movement, but it has to be moving at the same tempo.
There are many studies now showing that you can have quite powerful effects from moving in sync with others to music. We have music at virtually all events or situations where we want to feel connected with other people – weddings, parties, funerals and church services. It’s really powerful, and the scientific studies also show that these effects are real.
EP: Oral traditions are talked about, but the fact that there are gestural traditions is less talked about. You don’t just know the stories of your nation or the songs of your nation; you know the dances, and those usually convey important stories and traditions and information as well.
TPD: What you were saying about how gestures and movements that create sounds and music evolved and the idea that movement comes first in a way but both of those things evolved together is very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.
EP: The cultures that we think of as having the best through line oral traditions, such as Polynesian or Indigenous culture – a lot of their big group performances include body percussion. Like, the haka dance is body percussion and then there’s vocalization on top of that.
LT: You were asking about the separation of music and dance – in many cultures, dancers actually make sounds while they’re dancing. They’ll put bells on their ankles, or tap dance is an obvious example, where they actually create the sound while they’re dancing, so in those cases the music and the dance is the same.
This interview has been edited for clarity.