Upfront

Music, and making sense of it, may happen as much in the muscles as in the mind, according to a new study published in Cognition (Vol. 105, No. 3).

McMaster University psychologists Laurel Trainor, PhD, and Jessica Phillips-Silver, PhD, ran a series of experiments with eight undergrads at the university. In all of the experiments, researchers placed the students between two speakers that produced a steady, unaccented drumbeat for two minutes. In one scenario, the researcher would stand in front of the student, place his hands on top of hers, and slightly bounce up and down to either a waltz rhythm (DUH-duh-duh) or a march rhythm (DUH-duh-DUH-duh) while the student followed her cue.

Following this, the student listened to two accented drumbeat rhythms--a waltz and a march--from the speakers. Researchers then asked them to choose which rhythm was the most similar to what they heard during the movement exercise. The students picked the rhythm they had bounced to 86 percent of the time.

In the next experiment, researchers blindfolded the participants, ran the same test, and got the same results. But when they had the students sit still in a chair between the speakers and simply watch a researcher bounce, their accuracy rate plummeted to around 44 percent.

Because students were far more accurate when blindfolded but moving than when seeing but stationary, Trainor and Phillips-Silver conclude that movement is critical to auditory processing of rhythm, while visual cues are less important.

This finding dovetails with the fact that, in many cultures, music is inextricably intertwined with the concept of dance. In fact, the Swahili word ngoma means both "music" and "dance."

"It's been suggested that music makes us want to move our bodies," Trainor says. "But we've provided evidence that we hear what the body feels."

--M. Price