A few weeks ago I found myself scrolling through Youtube’s recommended videos out of curiosity (and boredom). I stumbled upon an hour long video titled 80s Pop Club Mix at a School Prom | Tinzo. After analyzing the lively orange thumbnail, I decided to listen to it while completing my homework. A mere ten seconds’ worth of music poured into my headphones before I noticed that I was moving with the people in the video (which I had only been listening to). I say “noticed” because this reaction seemed involuntary or even instinctual. The extravagantly dressed characters moved about as pixels on my laptop screen while I began to question how and why music compels people to dance.
Ever since humans have been human, we have incorporated some form of dance into our lives, whether it be cultural, expressive, playful, ritualistic, etc. Similarly, both instrumental and vocal music have been prevalent in all human cultures since at least 39,000 years ago, with some speculating them to even precede speech (Montagu). These art forms go hand in hand, and are inseparable from the human experience. Even in infancy, we respond to music by following its rhythm. Marcel Zentner and Tuomas Eerola conducted research concerning this phenomenon in infants’ movements. In short, they played both music and speech to infants while measuring their rhythmic movement durations for each. The results showed “infants engaged in significantly more rhythmic movement” in response to music than to speech, and were even found to be smiling at the musical stimuli (Zentner and Eerola 2). The authors go on to propose that “neurobiological mechanisms underlying entrainment in adults” may be the reason behind auditory-motor coordination’s “almost automatic [way]” of performing in young children (4). These pieces of evidence supporting the presence of rhythm-following movements in infants still fail to show any ability in “movement-to-music synchronization,” which is more similar to dance (4). Even though humans grow into their ability to dance to music, the ability to involuntarily recognize rhythm and move according to it is innate in infants.
This still does not answer the question of how music drives us to dance. “This compulsion” “to move in response to music” is defined as groove, and it can only be studied in our bodily movement (Levitin et al; Janata et al.). Since all eight billion humans have a unique taste in music, groove is completely subjective, and therefore exceedingly difficult to measure and apply to a larger group of people. A musical stimulus’s qualities and appeal to a certain person influences their perception of its groove, thus deciding whether or not they will move with the rhythm naturally.
As for the “why,” psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin suggests that, evolutionarily, “being able to band together with rhythmic movements” could be reason enough for our brains to go above and beyond in the musical department. One of his examples is in lifting heavy objects, such as the multi-ton building blocks of the pyramids, where a single person counting off-rhythm could have mortal consequences. This, combined with social benefits from cultural and ritualistic dance, explains our adaptation to follow rhythm. Dancing to music certainly includes the process of recognizing rhythm, but is more complex as a form of natural emotional expression, often triggered by upbeat and fast music. Due to the strong relationship between the human auditory and motor systems in the brain, this inclination to synchronize ourselves with the music results in dance (Heshmat).
Throughout these past few weeks, I have replayed Tinzo‘s 80s pop set over and over again. It has an addictively exciting and bubbly nature, from beats to lyrics to visual content, which enable the video to flip my mood upside down and turn a bad day into a good one. Like a musical caffeine, this set instantly amplifies any energy I have left by the end of the day, sometimes returning me to my days as a nap-time-stricken kindergartner who even dreads going to sleep.
Photo Credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3X69i0XIY-s
Heshmat, Shahram. “Why Are We Moved by Music?” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201807/why-are-we-moved-music. Accessed 11 Oct. 2023.
Janata, Petr; Tomic, Tomic, Stefan; Haberman, Jason M. “Sensorimotor Coupling in Music and the Psychology of the Groove.” Web of Science, v. 141, 01 February 2012, http://www.webofscience.com/wos/woscc/full-record/WOS:000299584100010?SID=USW2EC0D67LC84oA0MnImWC1tn1WG. Accessed 11 Oct. 2023.
Falk, Dan. “The music moves us–but how?” Knowable Magazine. 03 August 2018. knowablemagazine.org/article/mind/2018/music-moves-us-how#:~:text=The%20human%20response%20to%20music,says%20cognitive%20psychologist%20Daniel%20Levitin. Accessed 11 Oct. 2023.
Levitin, Daniel J., et al. Annual Review of Psychology, vol. 69, no. 1, 4 Jan. 2018, pp. 51–75, doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-122216-011740.
Montagu J (2017) “How Music and Instruments Began: A Brief Overview of the Origin and Entire Development of Music, from Its Earliest Stages.” Front. Sociol. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsoc.2017.00008/full#B25. 11 Oct. 2023.
Zentner, Marcel, and Tuomas Eerola. “Rhythmic engagement with music in infancy.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 107,13 (2010): 5768-73. doi:10.1073/pnas.1000121107