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Moving to a Beat Improves Musical Knowledge

Update Date: Dec 20, 2013 04:23 PM EST

When people hear certain types of music, their bodies might start to move and dance along with the beat. Despite knowing that the urge to move along with music can be inevitable, researchers have not been able to determine what causes these movements. In a new study, researchers working in McMaster's MAPLE Lab (Music, Acoustics, Perception and Learning) examined the role of music in generating movement. Although they did not find out how music triggers the body to move, the researchers did find that moving to music improves sense of timing and can lead to a better understanding of the song's musical structure.

For this research study, assistant professor Michael Schutz worked with graduate student Fiona Manning. They recruited 48 undergraduate students who either had up to 12 years of musical history or did not have any musical training at all. The participants were given a set of headphones in order to listen to a sequence of woodblock tones. During one part of the trial, the researchers instructed the participants to tap along with the beat. In another part, the participants were told to sit perfectly still.

When the sequence of music was just about to end, there was a break lasting a few seconds before the final note. The researchers tested the participants' listening ability by asking them to state whether or not the last tone was early, late or right on time. The researchers found that when people moved with the beat, they were better able to notice that the last tone was off because it played a little bit late. The researchers found this result independent of musical training.

"When you're on the bus or walking to work or school, anyone wearing an iPod is usually nodding or tapping along," said Schutz, who specializes in music cognition and percussion. "That movement is not only enjoyable, it actually helps us grasp music's structure. Amazingly, we don't need to be taught to move to music-children do this implicitly from a young age."

He added, according to Medical Xpress, "A solid beat is often a key element in hit songs, and it helps listeners move along. If you examine the Billboard 'Hot 100' list, many of those songs have a relatively simple beat. Music producers and songwriters recognize the pulse's importance to listeners, who frequently 'tap along' or move when hearing their favorite music."

The study will be published in the upcoming issue of Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

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