Home Science ‘Monkey hear, monkey do’ – Why a good beat gets us on...

‘Monkey hear, monkey do’ – Why a good beat gets us on our feet

Scarlett Parr Reid tells us why a good beat is hard to resist!


Most of us listen to music every single day: on the radio as we drive to work, through our earphones on long journeys, or through booming speakers at a party or club. Simply playing a song can conjure strong emotions, evoke memories, and tell stories in just a few minutes. Yet, one of music’s greatest and intrinsic effects, often overlooked, is its ability to make us boogie to a beat. And the reason why you just can’t resist the rhythm, or temptation to dance, is rooted in the innate activities of the brain.

our experience of a sound entails a mental image of a body motion

Rhythm recognition relies on both the auditory and motor regions of the brain. In fact, we have our own ‘Relative-Timing’ system which processes repetitive sounds and enables us to predict time intervals between beats. Hence, it’s unsurprising to see a crowd clap along seamlessly at a concert, or our feet subconsciously tap in time.

According to the ‘Motor Theory of Perception’, our experience of a sound entails a mental image of a body motion. Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), research has highlighted interaction between the Parietal Cortex of the brain (that recognises sounds) and the Supplementary Motor Area (that co-ordinates movement) as we listen to music. Furthermore, the more complex the music, the higher the activity levels are in these areas.

fMRI machine. Source: wiki commons

To fully understand why even toddlers bounce and bop to a beat, we must appreciate the process of producing music; it ultimately relies on physical vibrations to generate sounds (with the exception of computerised music, of course). But, you can’t have vibrations without actions: movement of vocal cord muscles as we sing, strumming guitar strings with our fingers and hitting a drum with drumsticks.

‘People perceive and make sense of what they hear by mentally simulating the body motion thought to be involved in the making of sound’, says Rolf Inge Godøy from the department of Musicology at the University of Oslo. This supports research suggesting that the Mirror Neurons – those involved in initiating an action after it is seen performed by someone else – are integral to linking music with movement. Exemplified in monkeys, the ‘Audio-Visual’ Mirror Neurons of the brain are active both whilst eating peanuts and on hearing others crack peanuts. Hence, the old adage ‘Monkey see, monkey do’. We hear music and our Mirror Neurons fire as if we are actually playing the instruments we’re exposed to. Our body and brain behave in synchrony with music.

Music unites people at a concert. Source: pxhere.

From an evolutionary perspective, synchronicity of movement between people exposed to a shared rhythm increases their sense of connection. Perhaps this even explains the euphoric buzz of the Glastonbury crowd as 175,000 festival goers, unbeknown to one another, are united by the power of music.

What makes this insight into the inborn musicians and dancers within us so special is the potential behavioural benefit of music synchronisation in therapeutic treatments. In fact, music therapy can help those with Parkinson’s disease (a neurodegenerative disease that severely limits patients’ mobility) to walk. Significantly, experiments on the phenomenon known as ‘Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation’ reveal that specific rhythms can be tailored to individuals to improve their motor abilities. So, the American country singer Mary Osmond’s 2016 solo album, ‘Music is Medicine’, highlights a fact of life.

We hear music and our Mirror Neurons fire as if we are actually playing the instruments

Whilst there are undeniably limitations of applying Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation as a treatment for Parkinson’s Disease or other motor-related disorders, with effectiveness varying for each individual, the research is promising. FMRI findings focalise the potential to use the inherent interactions of the brain to tackle otherwise debilitating diseases.

So if ‘I just can’t, I just can’t, I just can’t control my feet…and the magic music grooves me’…blame it on my brain.

Article written by Scarlett Parr Reid

bookmark me