Eyes on the Brain

A neurobiologist explores the amazing capacity of the brain to rewire itself at any age

Moving To The Beat

Are we sometimes too polite when listening to music?

Recently, I attended a small concert on an old farm in New England. The audience gathered in a barn-like building where we sat on worn, wooden benches close to the stage. At intermission, we chatted with the musicians as we enjoyed free home-baked cookies and fresh brewed coffee Most of the listeners were elderly music-lovers, kind-looking people, dressed in casual clothes. The whole atmosphere was informal, intimate, warm, and friendly.

 Yet, when the music played, the audience seemed unusually inert. As the performers lit into Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” my friend, sitting beside me, whispered “I want to get up and dance.” I too was moving to the beat, but when I looked around me, most of the audience sat quietly with set expressions on their faces. If I looked closely, I could see a little movement escaping here and there, a foot tapping or a head bobbing. But, for the most part, the audience was too polite to move.

 So I did a little experiment. I stopped moving to the beat and sat as still as possible. The music seemed more distant. It literally moved me less. While listening to Gershwin, we, the audience, were all taking part in a communal experience. Wouldn’t we have enjoyed the music more if we had all swayed and bobbed in synchrony and experienced what Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia called a “neurogamy” or binding together of our nervous systems? But, for this audience, feelings and actions remained subdued and suppressed until the music stopped. Then, in an explosive rush, everyone stood up and applauded.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

 What is it about the culture that prevents people in certain concert settings from moving to the music? This is totally unnatural. If there had been toddlers at the concert, they would have gotten up and danced. How different too was this audience’s response from the reaction to music of residents in my father’s nursing home! Indeed, when the music therapist at the home played old songs, the residents, who were often inert and withdrawn, as if by a miracle, woke up, sang, and moved to the beat.

 Moving to the beat is built into our nervous system. Connections exist between the auditory cortex, which processes sound, and areas of the brain that are involved with the planning and production of movements. These connections may have arisen because we are vocal learners and vocal mimics. To be able to mimic sounds and voices, we need to be able to link what we hear with how we move.

 We are not the only animals who can move with the beat although the types of animals with whom we share these skills may surprise you. Our closest relatives, such as monkeys and chimps, don’t move to the music, but they are not vocal learners. Parrots, cockatoos, and elephants are vocal learners and mimics, and they too move to the beat. Indeed, it was a youtube video of Snowball, a sulphur-crested cockatoo, bobbing to the beat of the Backstreet Boys that led scientists to explore this association between ourselves and some of our feathered friends!

 When we listen at a concert, we should keep our attention on the performers and the music. But this shouldn’t stop us from doing what comes naturally – from moving to the beat. Few experiences provide us with more of a sense of community, or more pleasure.

Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Fixing My Gaze (June, 2009).

more...

Subscribe to Eyes on the Brain

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.