Why do we tap our feet to a musical beat?

July 8, 2016, Taylor & Francis

In a paper recently published by the Journal of New Music Research, Professor Rolf Inge Godøy and colleagues at the University of Oslo explore the theory behind the relationship between musical sound and body movement.

Previous studies have shown that people tend to perceive affinities between sound and when experiencing music. The so-called 'motor theory of perception' claims these similarity relationships are deeply rooted in human cognition.

According to the theory, in order to perceive something, we must actively simulate the motion associated with the sensory impressions we are trying to process. So, when we listen to music, we tend to mentally simulate the body movements that we believe have gone into producing the sound. Thus, our experience of a sound entails a mental image of a .

Professor Godøy said: "Music-related motion, both sound producing and sound accompanying, leaves a trace in our minds and could be thought of as a kind of shape representation, one intimately linked to our experience of the salient features of musical sound. The basic notion here is that images of sound-producing and other sound-related motion are actively re-created in listening and in musical imagery, hence the idea that motor theory could be the basis for the similarities between sound and when we experience music."

Although links between musical sound and motion can be readily observed, the authors argue that a more systematic knowledge of them is required. To this end, they have used a wide range of research methods and approaches including a 'sound-tracing' experiment designed to explore the gestures people make to describe particular sounds.

Participants were played three-second sounds that varied in pitch and other musical qualities, and were asked to trace the sounds in the air using . The results indicated a fair amount of similarity among the participants' gestures, particularly between the vertical positioning of their hands and the pitch of the sound.

In general, some sound features such as rhythm and texture seem to be strongly related to movement while others, such as dissonance, have a weaker sound-motion relationship. As a result, the authors intend to focus their future work on researching large-scale statistical sound-motion feature correlations, providing us with more data on -motion similarity relationships in all kinds of musical experience.

Explore further: Won't get fooled again: Drummers use their hands to create musical illusions

More information: Rolf Inge Godøy et al. Exploring Sound-Motion Similarity in Musical Experience, Journal of New Music Research (2016). DOI: 10.1080/09298215.2016.1184689

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3 / 5 (1) Jul 08, 2016
As tool users our minds treat tools as extensions of our bodies. Music, at least for some people, activates portions of the brains that are associated with creating those sounds. Until we have a good form of artificial telepathy, we are all really experiencing the world through vastly different filters and just assuming that what affects you, will also affect others in the same way. I can't imagine the music that will come out once musicians are able to meld minds with each other and share their creative processes, but I know that the end result will be worth the effort.
3 / 5 (1) Jul 08, 2016
At its root level, the simplest form of rhythm possible is an interplay between two or more temporal frequencies in a factor of two ratio - all other possible rhythms and time signatures are more complex variations on this elementary form.

The same principle applies to frequency relationships in the spatial domain - the simplest possible relationship is again, factors of two of a fundamental, which we percieve as octave equivalence - the elementary form of harmonic consonance.

So the backbone of music - its spatial and temporal axes - are its maximally-simple entropic minima in each domain.

Brains (and even sensory organs themselves) delineate spatial and temporal information components for optimally-efficient parallel processing, and so form a basin of attraction for music's low entropy content.

Thalamacortical feed-forward and feedback circuits and temporal integration windows for higher faculties (incl. motor etc). all fall into respective octave-based bandwidths too.
not rated yet Jul 09, 2016
According to the theory, in order to perceive something, we must actively simulate the motion associated with the sensory impressions we are trying to process.

This may be just sloppy journalism but it does, none the less, imply that we do not have rhythmic movement UNLESS we consciously plan to do so by associating it to muscle movements. This is entirely false. The process is not under conscious control although it certainly can be modulated consciously. At the fundamental level, it is not under conscious control and as arises from innate predisposition, that is, genetically mediated cognitive structures.

By example, the heart beats faster in response to certain emotional cues including logical responses, such as supplying extra blood in readiness for exertion when a threat is perceived, and non-logical, such as rapid heart beat upon reading an emotionally charged letter, for instance a letter from a loved one.
not rated yet Jul 09, 2016

I agree, the same kind of wooly reasoning is often given to explain that our predisposition for rhythm is because it's soothingly reminiscent of the prenatal heartbeat, or that likewise, our affinity for harmony is rooted in maternal cooing and ahing.. ropey Freudian rubbish IMHO.

Rhythm induction is clearly physiological, centered and dependent upon a chunk of temporal bandwidth that somehow 'meshes' smoothly with the thalamacortical drivetrain, its temporal integration windows most likely correlating to those of hippocampal function, language, limbic and motor / motion processing.

This induction's borne of innate principles of efficient network processing. Thermodynamic and connective equilibria are the adaptive rails for the incoming information train, whatever its provenance or data structure, and music is a toy problem in 'native' format, to be temporally and spatially resolved to its respective time signature and tonic.. the same way we process everything else.

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