On our connection with music

Evolutionary or cultural?


One spring afternoon on the campus of Darthmouth College, New Hampshire, two people met and devised an experiment that would test the theory that music and motion are evolutionary connected with each other, and to us.

Of all the questions that keep us guessing, why music moves us so much has to be one that piques our curiousity the most. Yet, despite its ability to influence and release our emotions, it remains a somewhat elusive medium, with many people accepting that music “just is” – an unquestionable, mythical and profoundly moving medium that just happens to make us feel. But according to recent research, music’s impact has strong evolutionary roots, with findings suggesting that music activates the same brain circuitry that registers emotion in people’s movements.

One spring afternoon, psychology professor and guest lecturer, Thalia Wheatley, lectured a class on the origins of music at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire – where she now holds a position as professor of Social Neuroscience. Primarily interested in the awareness of our own mental states, including emotions, intentions and how we understand these states in other people, Wheatley begun to wonder if areas of the brain that were activated when perceiving motion were linked to the brain’s perception of music. If proven to be true, it would mean that the connections between music, movement, and emotion are innate, and follow the same pattern regardless of cultural differences.

Following the class, she was approached by student Beau Sievers, who asked if he could work on her hypothesis for his Master’s thesis. Agreeing, the two began work on devising an experiment designed to determine whether and to what extent expressions of the same emotion in music and movement share the same dynamic features, and whether humans are born with a predisposition to relate music and movement, or whether these relationships are cultural.

They conducted an experiment in two locations using a computer program written by Siever designed to generate matching examples of music and movement from a single set of features: rate, jitter, direction, step size, and visual spikiness. The experiment was conducted in two distinct locations, the United States and an isolated tribal village occupied by the Kreung tribe in Cambodia, and required participants to move sliders along a slider bar to depict five emotions: anger, happiness, peacefulness, sadness and fear.

There were two critical questions for the analysis: One, are emotional expressions universal, and two, are emotional expressions similar across cultures?

There were two critical questions for the analysis: One, are emotional expressions universal, and two, are emotional expressions similar across cultures? Keeping in mind that Kreung music sounds completely different from Western music, with none of the tribes’ people having had previous exposure to Western music or media, both groups of subjects tended to place their slider bars in approximately the same positions, regardless of whether they were creating angry music or angry animation.

Both Siever and Wheatley had previously hypothesised that they expected both groups would differ in their details, yet share core dynamic features. Results from the experiment proved that each emotion was represented by a unique combination of features that expressed the same emotion in both music and movement, proving that this ‘structure’ was shared between the two, and across the two test subject groups.

Before the experiment, Wheatley had acknowledged the existing relationship between motion and music, recognising that even our use of language demonstrates our belief that they are closely related – ‘dance’ and ‘music’, often used interchangeably. Yet despite their centrality to our lives, conclusive evidence of their relationship had remained elusive. For Wheatley, the experiment solidified what she’d first hypothesised – “This idea that music a frivolous add-on, and is not really serving a purpose, that it’s just a happy coincidence or auditory cheesecake or what have you – it just doesn’t feel right. Music is embedded in the rituals of every human culture, and helps people bond. There must be something that music is providing for us, that helps us as a social species.”

While Wheatley and Siever’s experiment helped shed light on our relationship with music, the complete depth of its influence is still widely debated. Could it be that music, like Aristotle’s theory that emotional, human expressions are universal, is truly evolutionary? Theorists who agree contend that music binds people together, and that the resulting closeness served survival purposes. The truth? We’re still learning it. Researchers like Wheatley and Siever are amongst the many scientists still working to uncover the truth depths of music’s roots, and just how closely we’re tied to it.


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