S is for Spontaneous Dancing

| February 25, 2014

When music is played to a child, the child dances. This is a spontaneuos event. Nobody has to teach him or her to move to the sound and rhythm of a beat. But why is this? Why did evolution decide that spontaneously moving to music was an essential trait to our survival as a species?

This ability to coordinate motor movements to auditory stimuli is unique to humans. We are all familiar with the situation whereby we hear a song and find ourselves tapping our foot to its rhythm almost unconsciously. One might argue that this is a learned impulse that we acquire as a result of being exposed to other people’s behavior. However, play some music to an infant who has yet to learn how to formulate speech (and has never been taught that coordinated movement is how one is supposed to react to music) and you will soon find yourself having to discard this hypothesis. Although this fact is easily observable, there is very little information available on the early manifestation of dance.

A study conducted by Marcel Zentner (University of York) and Tuomas Eerola (University of Jyvaskyla) in 2010 attempted to provide support for the view that humans are born with a natural predisposition to move to music. They recruited 120 babies (5 months to 2 years old) and subjected them to different types of auditory stimuli such as classical music, rhythmic beats and speech while assessing their spontaneous responses using 3D motion-capture technology.

The results yielded by this experiment showed that infants selectively exhibited a greater extent of rhythmic movement while listening to music as opposed to speech. It aslo showed that they were able to modify the speed of their movements to match the tempo of the music being played to them, and that “the better the children were able to synchronize their movements with the music the more they smiled”.

Not only this study supports the view of dance as an ability which is inherent to our nature. It also shows that, even as infants, we take great pleasure in succesfully producing coordinated movement in response to a rhythmic beat. In my next post I’d like to address the question; Why?

Original paper: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/13/5768.full