sensorimotor integration

Moving to the Beat Improves Musical Listening

Why do we feel compelled to tap our feet and nod our heads when listening to rhythmic music? One reason is that this movement actually helps us to better hear the temporal structure of musical information.

In this study, participants heard a series of regular beats followed by a short period of silence. After keeping track of the time during this silent period, participants heard one final beat and had to determine whether it was properly placed.  In half of the trials participants tapped (movement trials) along on a drum pad, and in the other half they were asked to listen without tapping (no-movement trials).

Participants were significantly better at detecting deviations to the final beat when tapping along with the sequence vs. when listening without moving  (see Fig. 1; error bars represent a 95% confidence interval). This effect was substantial, amounting to an 87% improvement in timing detection in some conditions (Manning & Schutz, 2013).  These results suggest that moving to the beat while listening is not only enjoyable, but actually helps us to hear the timing of auditory information (such as music) more accurately.

To learn more, listen to this radio broadcast discussing early findings from this project, and/or test yourself with this sample of a trial used in the actual experiment.

Testing the renowned Toronto-based percussion ensemble TorQ for a lecture-concert revealed that although percussionists have better-than-normal rhythm perception while moving, it raised other questions about interactions between training, movement, and rhythm perception.

To explore this important issue, we then tested many percussionists around Southern Ontario and through a collaboration with the Percussive Arts Society two PASIC (Percussive Arts Society International Convention) trips.  

Our data document a surprising finding – that without movement, percussionists failed to out-perform students lacking significant musical training (Fig 2; error bars represent a 95% confidence interval).  However, they continued to outperform in the movement condition (Manning & Schutz, 2016).  This discovery raises important questions surrounding the interaction between musical training, movement, and rhythm perception.  See our publications page for full details on these experiments.