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Music moves us, literally. All human cultures dance to music, and its kinetic power is used in everything from military marches and political rallies to social gatherings and romance. The music-movement relationship is so fundamental that in many languages, the words for music and dance are interchangeable. However, despite its centrality to human experience, an explanation for the link between music and movement has been elusive.

A new study we published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesreveals that music and movement are linked because they share the same dynamic structure. That is, events in music and movement are organized in the same way in time. This common structure allows the same emotions to be expressed in music and in movement. We showed that this is true both in the United States and in an isolated tribal village in rural Cambodia. This suggests that the structural similarity between music and movement exists for all people, everywhere in the world, and serves as a canvas for emotional expression.

In order to test our hypothesis that music and movement share a dynamic structure, we picked five features that are common to both music and movement: rate, regularity, step size, up/down direction, and smoothness (consonance). We turned these five features into a computer program of five slider bars that participants could move around. Half of our participants were in the music condition and used the sliders to change music they heard. The other half of participants were in the movement condition and used the sliders to manipulate the bouncing of an animated ball. For both the music and movement groups, each feature (slider) had an equivalent effect. For example, moving the rate slider changed how fast the notes played or how fast the ball bounced.

Once participants were comfortable with how the slider bars worked, we asked them to create each of five emotions: happy, angry, peaceful, sad, and scared. The critical question was whether people who used music to express a particular emotion set the slider bars to the same positions as people who expressed that emotion with the moving ball. They did. Each emotion had a particular dynamic signature that was the same whether people were creating music or movement. Further, we found that this result held true across cultures. We took the slider bar program to a remote Kreung village in northeastern Cambodia where people had never before used computers. The Kreung created emotions in music and movement in the same way as college students in the US.

These findings show two important things: 1) music and movement share a dynamic structure; 2) the link between music, movement and emotion is also cross-cultural. This extends the existing research on cross-cultural expressions of emotion and suggests that music’s expressivity may ultimately be derived from the evolutionary link between emotion and movement.

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