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"It's Got a Backbeat You Can't Lose It!"

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, June 19, 2014

Some music carries you melodically into dreams and reveries, and some conveys sadness, joy or a sense of peace. Then there's music that bounces along with skips and hops and you just have to dance, snap your fingers or tap your feet. Certain kinds of rhythm induce an almost irresistible urge to move.



A few years ago, Maria Witek, a neuroscientist at Aarhus University in Denmark, who studies emotion and loves music, created an online survey to try and figure out what music impels people to start swaying and dancing. She pursued the subject and described her findings to Michaeleen Doucleff in an NPR interview.


Album cover Pharrell Williams' song "Happy," which was just chosen as the new advertising theme song for the New Jersey Lottery, and The Meters "Hand Clapping Song" are examples of what her research shows. So is Chuck Berry's"Rock and Roll Music," especially the version he performs with Tina Turner. Try and sit still when you hear these!


Witek says when the rhythmic structure has gaps, or spaces in the underlying beat of the music, we are provided with "an opportunity to physically inhabit those gaps and fill those gaps with our own bodies." In a recent paper, she suggests that has to do with the way we hear music and the way the brain processes it by anticipating its structural patterns. In her survey, Witek asked respondents to listen to drumming pieces that ranged from simple rhythms with regular beats to very complex patterns with many gaps where beats might have been expected. She found people all over the world agreed on which patterns made them want to dance. They were the ones in between the very simple and the highly complex. People wanted to physically engage with the rhythm when there was enough regularity to perceive the beat and enough complexity to make it interesting without being totally unpredictable. They danced to the music that was layered with predictable beats and syncopated ones, she said. The layering can be provided by numerous musical combinations of claps, drums, other instruments, voice, and lyrics.


In a New York Times essay on rhythm, Nicholas Wade says Darwin thought that before our human ancestors developed speech, they discovered that musical notes and rhythm could charm potential mates. He says Darwin thought that music's origins in courtship explain why it can arouse strong passions. Wade notes that in his 1997 book How the Mind Works, Harvard scholar Steven Pinker called music "auditory cheesecake"-a happy accident we enjoy though it has no survival value. But Darwin theorized, according to Wade, that anything that enhanced courtship promoted survival by helping to perpetuate parental genes in a new generation. Read Wade's essay here. Thanks to Bruce Waltuck for the NPR story.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  music 

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