Rhythm on the brain, and why we can’t stop dancing

Music and dance are far from idle pastimes. They are universal forms of expression and deeply rewarding activities that fulfil diverse social functions. Both feature in all the world’s cultures and throughout history. A common feature of music and dance is rhythmic movement, which is often timed with a regular pulse-like beat.

But the human capacity for rhythm presents something of a puzzle.Even though rhythmic coordination seems fundamental to human nature, people vary widely in ability. Some have the machine-like precision of Michael Jackson, others are closer to the case of “beat-deaf” Mathieu.What are the underlying causes of these individual differences? By looking at the way the brain responds to rhythm, we can begin to understand why many of us can’t help but to move to a beat.

Results indicated that the strength of neural entrainment was related to people’s ability to move in synchrony with the beat. Individuals with strong neural responses were more accurate at tapping a finger in time with the beat of the two rhythms.

We also found individual differences in brain responses to the two rhythms. While some individuals showed a large difference between strength of entrainment for the regular rhythm versus the syncopated rhythm, others showed only a small difference.

In other words: some people required external physical stimulation to perceive the beat, whereas others were able to generate the beat internally.

Remarkably, people who were good at internally generating beats also performed well on a synchronisation task that required them to predict tempo changes in musical sequences.

So the capacity for internal beat generation turns out to be a reliable marker of rhythmic skill. This adds new meaning to Miles Davis’ reported maxim that “in , silence is more important than sound”.

But we still don’t know why individual differences in the strength of neural entrainment occur in the first place. They may reflect the efficiency of neural responses at early levels of auditory processing, such as brainstem responses. Or the degree of connectivity between higher-level auditory and motor cortical regions.

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