Music and dance in the brain


Our ability to derive pleasure from music appears to be a unique human trait and music is a universal feature of human societies. Yet, unlike other great human pleasures such as coffee or chocolate, music is not just pleasurable but often feels meaningful.

Neuroscience has started studying the neural mechanisms underlying music and discovered that the most parsimonious framework involves prediction and prediction error to elements in the musical structure. All pleasures follow a similar cyclical trajectory, such as when we become hungry and want food. Once we have found and start eating food, this brings about pleasure and eventually a sense of fullness (satiety) allowing us to begin the cycle anew; but typically pursuing yet other pleasures. In other words, pleasure is structured through a cycle of wanting, liking and satiety with learning occurring throughout this cycle. Music follows a similar cycle but unlike say food, we are rarely sated; instead allowing us to stay in a much prolonged state where we can, say, literally dance the night away. During this state, we stay mostly in the wanting phase, in a state of ‘sweet anticipation’; constantly trying to predict what comes next and taking great pleasure when this happens. As such this research framework can explain much of this cycle, including the pleasure experienced, but not why music feels meaningful.

The state of well-being evoked by music is directly linked to the Aristotelian concepts of hedonia (pleasure) and eudaimonia, the life well-lived, embedded in meaningful values together with a sense of engagement. Aristotle proposed that the state of eudaimonia is the highest end, and that all subordinate goals, such as health, wealth, and similar resources, are sought after because they promote eudaimonia. He conceptualised living well as a physical manifestation of virtuous activity, rather than a state or condition.

So, in search of better explanatory models for the meaningfulness of music, it might be useful to embrace the long-held view from anthropology and the social sciences that music is not just a cerebral activity but rather an embodied, social activity involving both music and dance.

Throughout human history, music has invariably been made and enjoyed with other people, and our obsession with consuming music in splendid isolation is a very recent phenomenon. Speaking to the importance of the social intertwining of music and dance, anthropological research has shown that in many societies there are no general terms for music and dance; rather, people use words for specific genres or performances involving both dance and music. In yet other societies, the same word is used for music-making, singing and dancing.

Researchers from different disciplines stand to gain from expanding concepts of how music and dance work through the brain and body. Dance and music can offer a privileged window, not only on the fundamental nature of the brain, but also on the very structure of societies. By their very nature, music and dance reflect the fundamental pleasure cycle through their constitutive elements of sound (melody, harmony, rhythm) that are constantly playing with our anticipatory brain mechanisms. We cannot help but try to predict the future from the past, yet this very process is often not conducive to well-being and flourishing as we all too often get stuck in worrying about a past we cannot change or a future that may never come pass. What is extraordinary about music and dance is that they allow us to free us from such worries and instead enjoy the moment. We are still investigating why this state of anticipation is different from the anticipation linked to worrying about the future but it is clear that this enjoyment is strongly synergised by moving our bodies freely with other people. This exploration is not just pleasurable but oftentimes experienced as deeply meaningful.

Over the last decade, in the Centre for Music in the Brain at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, we have been testing and developing the predictive coding of music model, describing the processing of music in terms of minimization of prediction error. This brain research has demonstrated that making music requires the integration of auditory input with  bodily feedback from an instrument or from dancing. We have also shown that learning and mastering an instrument can change the brain and that this leads to clear individual differences. Fundamentally, we have shown how social interactions through music can change our brains and the way we experience music. Taken together, these insights offer a new pathway to understanding how music becomes meaningful, which is perhaps the most scientifically daring and complex question about music.

Going forward, based on our findings and on conversations with other disciplines, we will focus more on how music is involved in establishing, maintaining and fine-tuning meaningful human relationships and interactions. We will try further our understanding of the dynamics and underlying brain mechanisms of music making between people, by studying interpersonal synchronization, social entrainment, improvisation and musical communication. We expect this novel research to provide insights into musical meaning making, and also to shed light on meaning making in the brain in general.

Overall, these interdisciplinary perspectives propose that music and dance “generate certain kinds of social experience that can be had in no other way ... Perhaps, like Levi-Strauss’s ‘mythical thought,’ they can be regarded as primary modeling systems for the organization of social life...”, as already suggested by the anthropologist John Blacking back in the late 1960s. It is clear that a cross-cultural investigation of music and dance in body and brain is a rich vein of research that could potentially inform neuroscientific perspectives and vice versa. This may even hold a key to understanding those most elusively and highly coveted states of human flourishing underlying a life well lived.

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