Feeling It: Movement and Learning Rhythm


Civilised, enlightened, square

Western scientists noticed as early as the Victorian era that rhythm was bound with movement. In his 1894 essay “Rhythm”, Thaddeus Bolton reported to The American Journal of Psychology that no “primitive” person “is able to listen to music […] without making some kind of muscular movements”. He marvels at the effect that “rhythm of drums and the repetition of a simple melody” holds over “certain classes of people, savages and children”. Bolton operated within a colonial framework, and much of his later scholarship was concerned with racial psychology, so it’s unsurprising that he contrasts groove-oriented rhythm against what he saw as higher faculties, best represented in the mature, civilized, rational, and self-controlled white man, a la G. Stanley Hall.

Painful as it is to sift through Bolton’s ideologies, his focus on the “terrible leaping and gesticulations [to] the accompanying tom-tom” is prescient in light of modern behavioural, neurological, and neuroimaging investigations of rhythm. For instance, the way in which we move to a rhythm may impact how we hear it. Researchers found that participants were better at predicting a tone at the end of a series of beats having tapped along, compared to when listening alone, even when they couldn’t hear their own tapping. Using an ambiguous rhythm that could be interpreted in either a waltz or in common time, another group report that children and adults prefer and interpret new rhythms according to how they moved during the training phase, i.e., in 3/4 or 4/4 time. Movement also appears to enhance one’s ability to detect and locate an interrupted beat, when compared to listening-only conditions, especially for non-musicians. Intriguingly, we may even covertly move to music: anticipatory muscle activity while tapping to a rhythm differs substantially from unpaced movements, yet muscles show an almost identical preparatory profile during “passive”, or immobile, listening.

Functional brain imaging studies that use rhythm tasks or stimuli show activity in what are traditionally considered the motor areas of the brain, even when experimental subjects are lying perfectly still—not that MRI machines are ever really conducive to dancing.

If you love hiphop, thank your basal ganglia

These regions typically include the basal ganglia, cerebellum, and cortical motor areas. Moreover, evidence from people who have Parkinson’s disease, which affects the basal ganglia, suggests that their ability to process rhythms with a beat may be compromised. These and corroborating data lead some cognitive scientists to argue that our ability to perceive and process rhythms are entirely based in action: whether covert, imagined, or arising from past motor experiences.

But could movement play a role in learning rhythm, especially qualities like groove or swing? Anecdotally, it isn’t unusual to hear jazz musicians, including professional educators, say that rhythm can’t be taught. Or that if someone can’t swing now, they’ll never be able to. This online discussion at Drummer’s World exemplifies a few prevailing attitudes (plus some really dodgy discourse on “rhythm and musical detection” also existing in other primates, due to the cerebellum¹). I encountered similar beliefs when I was in music school. The rule, spoken or unspoken, seemed to be that some students just have a knack for playing with the right feel, or internally holding a stable beat across a break. And others don’t.

Here, rhythm contrasts with pitch and harmony, which are formalized and disseminated in a proceduralized manner, typically starting with Fux counterpoint and ending up somewhere around Mark Levine. There are required foundational and upper-level courses dedicated to these topics. In other words, it’s expected that, with enough time and effort, everyone should be able to pick these elements up. There are plenty of socio-cultural-historical reasons for this that in part reflect the origins of jazz as an African American syncretic practice, one that draws on both West African rhythms and structure and Western European tonality. For instance, slave musician entertainers in plantation houses and mixed-race Creole children of color in New Orleans could openly learn quadrilles and waltzes, but African percussion pedagogy and musical enculturation, as may exist in present-day Ghana, would have been forced underground and remain notably absent in North American musical curricula.

Instead, simply the very basic elements of rhythm are taught, typically via counting and notation, as is done in Western classical music. I began my own career at a conservatory where I learned classical flute, but without the benefit of either the Suzuki or Dalcroze methods, which do stress aural training and movement. In fact, any gesture viewed as extraneous to sound production was actively discouraged, and I can recall a teacher mocking a performer who stamped her foot as she played. Expressive swaying was okay, but nothing too percussive. This is a generalization, of course, but consider some of this advice from “Ask the Experts” in The Strad, a literary institution in the orchestral world.

 [E]xcessive movement can misdirect your energy. It can also be a turn-off for the audience and for fellow players. It can be a hard habit to break, because it is probably strongly ingrained


Excessive body movements in classical performance can greatly detract from the intended musical message of the performer. Although it is important to have freedom of motion to help with the release of tension, this does not mean you should be a dancer on stage.

[…] Focus on the details and you will move your attention from big gestures to little gestures. Greater accuracy and precision will be your reward for the economy of excessive movement. Learn to dance with your bow, not your body.

I appreciate that the educators I quote here are concerned with ideal tone production, and as a former classical player, I know how important technique and precision in articulation are. For these practitioners, dance truly does detract from the music, because The Music here refers to the acoustic signal transmitted to a passive audience (unlike, say, the music at a James Brown concert). But do small, limited movements facilitate an aptitude for rhythm the same way that big, body movements do? Can we dance with a bow as well as we do our body?

Once more, with feel

Although classical pros are expected to play through very intricate rhythmic passages, traditional Western notation offers just a crude approximation of one or two—including accents—dimensions in rhythmic content. Feel, groove, inter-musician timing, the pocket—these qualities are latent in the score, and their emergence is dependent on the expertise and cultural-stylistic-contextual currency of the performers involved in realizing the work.

Is this a problem? In classical and Romantic repertoire, a steady beat isn’t really the point. Some modernist composers, such as Debussy, appropriated folk and African American rhythmic elements, with less than banging results in practice. That said, early music specialists do learn the dance steps associated with Baroque forms, if only for the sake of authenticity. Yet jazz and other groove-concerned musicians are known to lament how their classical counterparts just aren’t on the same page, leading to big time drama, as seen in this flaming bag of comments section:

I agree with a lot of Adam’s points, although I don’t support his theory that orchestral musicians are reacting to the conductor’s beat keeping. There is evidence this aspect of her role is sometimes outright ignored. I do think that learning rhythms from notation promotes a strange cart-before-the-horse conception of musical pulse, one in which beats are tallied up like grains of sand in an hourglass, rather than experienced as moving targets, with the score acting as a sort of viewfinder or grid. I suspect this practice may contribute to the reactive, rather than anticipatory, approach that Adam so succinctly describes.

Meanwhile, before YouTube, the president of the New England Conservatory of Music, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, orchestral conductor, and professional French horn player Gunther Schuller had all the classical street cred you could want, but that didn’t stop him from slamming his colleagues’ sense of rhythm.

[…] the leisurely attitude of the majority of classical players toward rhythmic accuracy is simply appalling, and would seem so to more people were it not so widespread as to be generally accepted. There is no question in my mind that the classical world can learn much about timing, rhythmic accuracy, and subtlety from jazz musicians, as jazz musicians can in dynamics, structure, and contrast from the classical musicians. […] Of course they can’t swing; even in their own music they barely manage.

Ouch! In a comparably reconciliatory tone, funky guitarist Adam Rafferty makes the compelling argument that jazz and classical traditions don’t just clash stylistically, but occupy different rhythmic universes. His entire blog post on this topic is excellent, but here are some of my favourite excerpts:

There is a big difference between “head rhythm” and “body rhythm”. Also – there is a difference between mere “time” and a “pulse”. To play music with an AFRICAN rhythmic concept is very different from a European rhythmic concept. […] When you are playing it or hearing it properly – you experience “body rhythm” and your body starts moving like James Brown or Count Basie – without effort, without “trying to look” like you are grooving for the sake of appearances. Nope, this groove is the real thing. You can feel it, and everyone else can too. It’s an “US” thing – with the performer and audience, not a “ME” thing. […] What I am saying is that just as Einstein “uncovered” E=mc squared, African drummers and musicians “unlocked and uncovered” certain musical aspects of rhythm that to my knowledge, no one in Europe did.

Whether you prefer one over the other, or appreciate each in its context, it should be clear by now that jazz² and classical senses of rhythm differ, as do their attitudes towards movement whilst playing. This is one of the reasons why I wish music psychology and neuroscience researchers undertook a more nuanced and meticulous approach when attempting to measure or select for musical sophistication in their participants. For instance, a self-described “non-musician” who grew up dancing to Brazilian folk and popular forms may well have more of the rhythm you’re looking for than a formally trained English chorister. But I digress.

So, in return to the question of whether dancing with a bow is as good as dancing with, or as, a body? If you ask a jazz musician, the answer is probably no. To take an empirical, scientific perspective, there are a limited number of studies that compare various body parts in tapping tasks (e.g., fingers vs. feet) and naturalistic dancing with motion capture (e.g., shoulder wiggle vs. hip wiggle). These studies don’t demonstrate a causal relationship between type, magnitude, or intensity of movements performed and other indications of rhythm aptitude, however. One paper did suggest that participants were better at clapping their hands to a metronome than bouncing to the beat, but this could be attributable to their having more life-long experience with clapping hands than bending knees in place to music, or perhaps to the lack of haptic and auditory feedback associated with bobbing. Besides, backbeat aficionados will tell you that it isn’t just clapping a straight-ahead 4/4 beat that’s the problem, it’s knowing when and how to clap (spoiler: clap on two and four).

The producers of the aforementioned ambiguous rhythm studies replicated their findings in passive adults, who lay still on a large see-saw as they were physically rocked by an experimenter. Whereas both full-body and head-only movements elicited a disambiguating effect, results were null when only participants’ lower bodies were moved to the beat. What does this mean? The authors propose the vestibular system may have an important role in how we perceive rhythm, an open question that could yet benefit from a growing body of gait research. Finally, although genre and style were not compared here, a behavioral study investigating instrument-specific training found that pianists, drummers, singers, and string-players mostly outperformed non-musicians on rhythmic tapping tasks, but generally did not differ from one another on the basis of their main axe. The authors argue that “general musical experience is more important than specialized musical experience with regards to perception and production of rhythms”, but I don’t think the musician participants (who may have all been performing at ceiling level) were in a position to demonstrate their competence in more nuanced aspects of rhythm production. In any case, drummers did stand out in a beat-specific task, and the pianists were unsurprisingly most precise at pushing buttons with their fingers.

In light of what science can presently contribute to what we know about rhythm, I can’t use experimental evidence to argue that classical musicians should or shouldn’t embrace hip-wiggle if they want to swing. But I will share my own experience: messing around with very basic grooves using drumsticks and a practice pad did wonders for my timing and feel, a problem that frustrated me endlessly as a beginning jazz guitarist. Almost as soon as I had acted out the rhythm figures on an imaginary kit, I was able to transfer my enhanced sense of timing to my main instrument, which requires very different movements. It felt like I had acquired a physical language, one that I could use across playing situations.

It appears that more rhythmically involved musical forms are also associated with more outward movement. Current research makes a strong case for linking rhythm with action; however, these studies only tell us about very rudimentary aspects of musical behavior, like synchronising with a metronome, though this is itself a marvelous feat that remains enigmatic to scientists. We can therefore only speculate how subtler or more sophisticated concepts, such as feel, are processed. In the meantime, if you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around that Afro-Cuban clave pattern in 7/4, just remember:

The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing.

James Brown


¹ Other primates, so far as human experimenters think, are actually a great example of closely related animals that don’t appear to spontaneously engage in beat-based rhythmic behaviour. It’s unclear whether this is due to capability or ethology, but it seems that with enough sugar water or grapes, you might be able to train a chimp to tap to a metronome. But if you ask her to shake it to a highly tempo-variable cover band, it would likely be very difficult for her to adjust her pace and continue dancing along to their shaky beat, unlike humans, who seem to do it naturally (forgivingly, even). The difference could be that human beat-based timing is anticipatory—we automatically predict, or expect, how the rhythm will unfold—and relative, meaning that as the tempo changes, our sense of when the next beat will occur scales accordingly, without any obvious cognitive effort.

Hence, while the forum poster is possibly correct in assuming humans and nonhuman primates have similar forms of motor timing, it’s unclear whether we share musical rhythm. Rather, the best candidate animals for this aptitude, at press time, are a sassy cockatoo and a sea lion that will only do it for the fish.

² Indeed, all forms associated with Black American Music.

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Alexis Deighton MacIntyre

PhD student in cognitive neuroscience, jazz guitarist, Vancouver Islander living in the UK. Centre for Music and Science, University of Cambridge; Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London.