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? Continue reading