“Motor cortex of the brain is activated by the rhythm of music”

“Motor cortex of the brain is activated by the rhythm of music” – Professor of Music Petri Toiviainen knows what happens in our bodies when rhythm affects the brain functions.

Have you ever wondered why people move their feet to the beat of the music or why doesn’t everyone possess a sense of rhythm? Petri Toiviainen, jazz musician and Professor of Music from the University of Jyväskylä, knows the answers to these questions. He is also one of the lectures of the Tampere Chamber Music Festival. The topic of his lecture is how rhythm affects human brain and body.

Rhythm in music has always played an important role to Toiviainen. He noticed while playing that it’s easier to keep up the rhythm by moving to the music. “Majority of music listeners report that they move to the music, often unintentionally and unnoticed. Listeners move their bodies, nod their heads or tap their feet to the beat”, Toiviainen tells.

Rhythm sometimes makes us move without noticing. You may have noticed tapping your foot or moving to the music without a conscious decision. This is how Toiviainen explains the phenomenon: “Motor cortex of the brain is activated by the rhythm of music”. Music makes us for example walk faster and improves our athletic performances.

Image: Nauska

The phenomenon has also been utilized in healthcare. “With patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease, it has been observed that listening to music with regular pulse helps to move their limbs regularly and improves their walking. It has also been observed that using various rhythmical exercises speeds the recovery from a brain stroke”, Toiviainen tells.

Interaction between the rhythm and the body is not that simple. It is affected by many variables. Speed, frequency and structure of music can for example affect how easily a person begins to move to music. According to Toiviainen: “the effect is strongest when the rhythmic structure is suitably challenging. The structure can’t be too simple or complicated. Low frequencies such as bass affect how musical movement is formed the most.”

Moving to music is such an essential part of being human that even babies move when they hear music. “However, pacing the movement to the pulse of music only happens at the age of 6-8 years”, Toiviainen clarifies. The movement caused by music slows down with age. Small children move to the music fastest.

Image: MI PHAM on Unsplash

Besides the effect of rhythm, Toiviainen has also been interested in the people who don’t synchronize to the music they hear. The term for this phenomenon is beat deafness. The subject has been studied by brain imaging i.e. by measuring the activity of different parts of the brain when listening to music and how the activation varies. By studying people with beat deafness “there might be a chance to understand more about the relationship of music and movement.”

Motor skills and role of the body hasn’t always been an area of interest for researchers in music cognition. Toiviainen, however, sees the motor skills and the body as an essential part of the research field because “music and dancing are inseparable in many music cultures.”

The aim of Toiviainen is to learn to understand what is the role of movement in observation of music and how musical movement depends on the structure of the music and characteristics of the listener. “A person’s personality and mental state also have an effect on what kind of movement the music creates”, Toiviainen says. This explains why a happy extroverted senior dances to the music differently than an apathetic introverted teenager.

Image: Jesse Orrico on Unsplash

The study is supported by motion capture technology which can accurately measure and analyze the movement paths of different parts of the body. The aim is to analyze the relationship of music and movement from many different perspectives. According to Toiviainen: “in addition to motion capture technology, research utilizes brain imaging, a variety of personality tests and inquiries.”

The music researchers still have unanswered questions. “One question that still remains open is whether human motoric system has a causal role on how music is observed. It is not yet known whether the motor system actively participates in the perception of the temporal structure of the music or is the activation of the motor cortex merely a reaction to listening to music.” Toiviainen is personally interested in what happens between listeners’ bodies when they listen to music. What happens for example in a club environment where dancers interact with each other through movement?

What do you think? Do you dance better with friends or alone in front of the mirror? Join Toiviainen in discussing the relationship and interaction between rhythm, motor skills and music at the Tampere Chamber Music Festival. Toivianen’s lecture is on Sunday the 18th of February.