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Music, Movement and Emotion

Have researchers found the connection between music and emotion?

Most people have little trouble identifying the basic emotional character of music that they hear. We can easily distinguish music that sounds happy and cheerful from music that sounds sad or brooding. One of the perennial questions in the philosophy of music is what, exactly, is the relationship between music and the emotions it expresses? Is it a matter of personal association? This seems unlikely, given the wide agreement about which musical works sound happy or sad, etc. Is music happy or sad in virtue of arousing those emotions in listeners? The evidence so far suggests that this answer is too simplistic. Another theory suggests a connection between music and the movements of the human body, such that sad music (for example) mimics the posture and actions of a sad person. While this seems like a promising idea, the relationship between music and movement is not well understood.

A group of researchers at Dartmouth College recently set about to explore the connections between music, movement and emotion. They started with the idea that music and movement share a dynamic structure. To test this idea, they came up with a computer program that could both generate music (simple piano melodies) and represent movement (an animated bouncing ball). The program was designed so that certain musical features corresponded with specific movements of the ball. Beats per minute of music corresponded to bounces per minute of the ball. The direction and step-size of the musical pitches corresponded to the angle and bounce-size of the ball. Musical consonance or “smoothness” (as opposed to dissonance) was represented by the evenness or spikiness of the ball’s surface. Users could move a slider to compose music or to animate the bouncing ball., and the output was updated in real time so that they could see and hear the results of the changes as they made them.

Next the researchers recruited 50 college students to play with the program. Half of the students were given the “music” version, and half were given the “movement” version. Each student was asked to use the program to express five different emotions: angry, happy, sad, scared and peaceful. Would the participants place the sliders in similar places for the same emotions, regardless of whether they were doing the music or the movement version?

The answer was yes. The results “strongly suggest” the presence of a common structure in emotionally expressive music and movements. Rate, jitter, step-size and direction of movement functioned the same way in emotional music and in movement, and auditory dissonance was functionally analogous to visual spikiness.

The researchers didn’t stop after getting these positive results. Instead, they packed their bags and set out for northeast Cambodia, where they repeated the experiment in a small Kreung village. The Kreung are highly culturally isolated. Their music is very different from Western music, as they use different instruments, scales and tunings. Would the Kreung create auditory and visual patterns similar to those produced by American college students?

Although the experiment had to be modified to work in the Krueng village, the results were very suggestive. For the movement patterns, researchers found that, for every emotion except “angry,” the music and movement patterns created by the Kreung villagers were closer to the matching American patterns than to any other emotional patterns. Looking at the music patterns, they found that three of the Kreung patterns – for happy, sad, and scared – were closer to U.S. patterns than to any other emotional patterns. When the movement and music patterns did not match up, they were similar on many parameters.

These experiments bring us closer to understanding the relationship between music and emotion. They provide evidence both that the dynamic features of emotional expression may be culturally universal, and that emotional expressions have similar dynamic contours in music and movement. The authors of this study leave us with a penetrating question: Given the shared structure between music and movement, how might that structure have affected human evolution? I can only hope that these experiments are repeated with different populations in different parts of the world so that we can have a better grasp of the relationship between music and movement and come closer to answering this question.


Beau Sievers, Larry Polansky, Michael Casey, and Thalia Wheatley. Music and movement share a dynamic structure that supports universal expressions of emotion. PNAS 110: 1 (January 2, 2013), pp. 70–75.