Have you ever lost yourself in dance? Or have you bounced your foot or wiggled with the rhythm of music? Do you find yourself smiling when you do so? You are not alone! From a simple drumbeat to popular rock-and-roll, the sound of music makes people of all ages move along in time to the beat. We see people tapping, clapping, and bouncing when listening to their favorite songs at a concert hall or on their phones. The urge to move with music has been part of all cultures across the world for as long as we have been studying humans. There are even some animal species that like to dance! Why is this? In this article, we explain what it is about music that makes us want to move—and what is happening in our brains when we do. Let us dive into the science behind dance.
Dance means the act of moving one’s body rhythmically to music. Music is simply a mixture of sound waves made by a human voice or a musical instrument. Sound waves are invisible and travel through the air and into our ears. When the sounds reach our ears, they send signals to a part of the brain called the auditory cortex. The signals then travel to other areas of the brain. Through this process, music “lights up” the brain regions that are responsible for thinking and understanding—and for reward, emotion, language, and movement. Let us find out more about how music affects our minds and bodies!
Our Bodies Get Synced to the Rhythm of Music
When you think about music, you might imagine your favorite song or band. Or you might think about the classical or jazz music you are learning to play on an instrument. A scientist would describe music as a series of sounds and silences that happen in a particular pattern over a certain time period. The pattern of musical sound is called rhythm. Most music also has regular beats, called meter, which is what makes us want to move our bodies in time with it. It is easy to move to music with a meter because we can guess what is coming next. Our internal body rhythms start to match up with the rhythm or meter of the music. This process is called rhythmic entrainment.
Video 1 demonstrates rhythmic entrainment. Have you ever seen an old-fashioned grandfather clock? Hanging beneath the clock face is a long bar with a weight on the end, called a pendulum. As the pendulum swings from side to side, its movements turn a series of cogs, which then turn the hands of the clock. Pendulum clocks were invented in 1666 by a Dutch physicist, Christian Huygens. Huygens placed two pendulums on the same wall and started swinging them at different times. Soon, the two pendulums started swinging back and forth in time with each other! They had become synchronized. This is a great example of entrainment. How does this happen?
An object moving with a set rhythm, like the pendulum of a clock, is called an oscillator. The word “oscillate” comes from the Latin word “oscillat” which means “to swing.” When the pendulums start to oscillate, they transmit small amounts of energy to each other through the base they are standing on. When one pendulum swings, it creates energy that is transferred through the base to the second pendulum. When the second pendulum swings back, it also makes energy and passes it back to the first pendulum. It is a bit like two people having a conversation. As this small energy exchange repeats, it gradually changes how quickly each pendulum oscillates. The faster oscillator slows down, and the slower oscillator speeds up, until they move at the same speed. Once the oscillators are synchronized, they stop transmitting energy between them. Being synchronized uses the least amount of energy.
Many things in nature have their own rhythms. From the tiniest atoms to our own heartbeats or breathing, the world is full of things that oscillate. Rhythmic entrainment—synchronization—is happening all around us every day, including when we listen to music. The oscillator of the body becomes entrained to the rhythm of music. Our feet begin to tap or stamp, we bounce up and down, or we walk along in time to the music, the same way the pendulums started moving together in Huygens’ experiment. Even our heartbeat and breathing can start to keep time with the music !
Our Minds Emotionally Bond to Music
We now know why we move along in time to music. But why do we enjoy dancing so much? For centuries, psychologists (who study our thoughts and behaviors) have been interested in how music affects our emotions. Most forms of music express emotions through tempo, melody, and rhythm. Think about a cheerful song. Is it fast or slow? Is it upbeat or down? Now think about a sad song. Is it different from the happy song? A happy birthday song might make us feel good because the melody and rhythm are happy and bright and because we often hear or sing that song when having fun with family or friends. We associate the birthday song with good times, so when we hear it, we remember those times and feel happy as a result!
The way we move our bodies is deeply connected to our emotions and feelings. When we are happy, we might jump around or wave our arms in the air. When we are sad, we might hunch over or fold our arms around our bodies. But the opposite is also true. Hunching over and wrapping our arms around our bodies can make us feel sad. Jumping around and waving our arms can make us feel happy! Expressing our emotions through movement is called the embodiment of emotions.
Music is a great example of the embodiment of emotions. This is because music performers express emotions through movements, which causes listeners to have similar emotions. So, listening to jolly music can make us feel happy and move our bodies in a jolly way by jumping, clapping, or singing along, which makes us feel even happier! Think about how a ballet dancer might move to a slow, sad tune. Or how a rock star might bounce to a happy, energetic song. In this way, we can use music and movement to show others how we feel. In essence, we move to music to express, experience, and enrich our feelings through melody or rhythm. Scientists have confirmed that music helps us feel and express our emotions. So, when we dance to upbeat music, we can not help feeling happy!
Music Lights Up the Brain
The brain region that causes movement is called the primary motor cortex. When we hear music, this part of the brain is activated and encourages us to move. Another brain region is also at work when we listen to music—the limbic system, which is the part of the brain associated with reward and emotions. The limbic system triggers the release of body chemicals called hormones, which make us feel good. So, listening and moving to music can cause our bodies to release feel-good hormones. When moving our bodies in time to music, our feelings and emotions also bond with the music.
Psychologists think that brain cells called mirror neurons also play a role in our enjoyment of music. Mirror neurons are brain cells that are activated when we see other people doing something . For example, if your friend yawns, your eyes see them opening their mouth wide and your ears hear a yawning sound. This triggers mirror neurons in your brain that make you want to yawn, too! Try fake-yawning in front of a family member and see what happens!
Mirror neurons also help you experience what is expressed by music performers. For example, when watching a band, your mirror neurons might encourage you to play air guitar while your favorite rock star is playing real guitar. Making similar movements to people performing music helps us relate to the emotions the musicians are expressing . When several people move and feel the rhythm and emotions of music at the same time, their brains mirror each other’s behaviors and they become socially bonded. See Figure 1 for an overview.
We Are All Born to Enjoy Dancing
We now know why people enjoy listening and moving to music. Our dance moves might improve as we get older, but we are all born with the ability to dance. Scientists studied infants 5 months to 2 years old . They played a variety of music, including classical pieces by Mozart and Saint-Saëns, children’s songs, and drumbeats, as well as non-musical sounds like recordings of people talking. They found that babies moved more rhythmically when hearing music than when hearing non-musical sounds, and they smiled more when moving with music! These findings show that people are literally born to enjoy dancing, although everyone has their own unique desire and ability to dance. See Figure 2 for an overview.
Some Animals Can Dance, Too!
Studies have shown that it is not just humans who dance. Some animals can entrain to music too. The most famous example is a parrot called Snowball (Video 2), whose movements consistently matched the rhythm of music in an experiment . Some other examples of dancing animals include a sea lion (Video 3) that bobbed its head to a metronome and other rhythms, a bonobo that spontaneously drummed in synchrony with a scientist, and a horse that seemed to be trotting in time with music .
Scientists have suggested that animals may learn to move to the beat of music for food rewards or social bonding. The sea lion was trained for months with rewards of fish, and the parrot was rewarded with praise, which made it feel close to its human trainers. For us humans, engaging in music and dance helps us bond with others, contributing to the formation of unique cultures over thousands of years .
There is still a lot to discover about how humans and animals engage with music. Based on our current knowledge, we now understand that almost all humans and some animals can move to music. They choose to do so because it makes them feel good. Hopefully, in the future, you might join us to explore the science behind dance and music.
Auditory Cortex: ↑ A brain region that processes auditory information in humans and some animals.
Rhythm: ↑ A broad term in music referring to the certain pattern of sound (note) and silence (rest).
Meter (Metre): ↑ In music, it refers to the regularly recurring patterns of stressed and unstressed beats.
Rhythmic Entrainment: ↑ A temporal coupling of two independent oscillators, by which one oscillator’s frequency entrains the frequency of the other.
Video 1: ↑ Rhythmic entrainment of five metronomes on a common base.
Oscillator: ↑ An object moving back and forth with a set regular rhythm.
Embodiment of Emotions: ↑ The physical representation or expression of one’s emotional states.
Primary Motor Cortex: ↑ A brain region that provides the most important signals to produce skilled movements.
Limbic System: ↑ The collection of brain structures that are involved in emotion processing and behaviors.
Mirror Neurons: ↑ A set of neurons in the brain that modulate a specific action in humans and some animals or when they observe the same or similar action in others.
Video 2: ↑ Snowball’s tribute to Michael Jackson.
Video 3: ↑ A scientific recording of a sea lion’s beat keeping.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
 ↑ Zatorre, R. J., Chen, J. L., and Penhune, V. B. 2007. When the brain plays music: auditory–motor interactions in music perception and production. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 8:547–58. doi: 10.1038/nrn2152
 ↑ Rizzolatti, G., and Craighero, L. 2004. The mirror-neuron system. Ann. Rev. Neurosci. 27:169–92. doi: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.27.070203.144230
 ↑ Zentner, M., and Eerola, T. 2010. Rhythmic engagement with music in infancy. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 107:5768–73. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1000121107
 ↑ Patel, A. D., Iversen, J. R., Bregman, M. R., and Schulz, I. 2009. Experimental evidence for synchronization to a musical beat in a nonhuman animal. Curr. Biol. 19:827–30. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2009.03.038
 ↑ Wilson, M., and Cook, P. F. 2016. Rhythmic entrainment: why humans want to, fireflies can’t help it, pet birds try, and sea lions have to be bribed. Psychon. Bull. Rev. 23:1647–59. doi: 10.3758/s13423-016-1013-x