Music, movement, and emotion (scientifically speaking…)

I’ve been following Robin’s blog (Born Again Oboe!), and in one of his postings ( he commented on oboists moving, or “dancing,” while they play. I’ve came across different opinions about this debate, and I personally think that there is no final conclusion about the best approach. As long as the message is sent and the movements (or lack of them) are not distracting, then it is fine. I know that I have a tendency to move while I play. Sometimes I avoid it during practice, so I can focus on the details, but when performing or playing for fun, I just let it happen.

I had this in mind when I came across this short lecture by Daniel J. Levitin (psychology professor at McGill University) on music and the brain, and our natural tendency to move when we hear music. From a psychological and anthropological perspective, he states that not only has music, or musical sounds, been used to promote movement, be that in dancing or to synchronize laborers, but also that these sounds are processed in more primitive structures of the brain: the cerebellum, the brain stem, and the ponds. This does not mean that sounds are not processed in the cerebral cortex, but Levitin makes the point that in studies, language processing did not activate the primitive parts of the brain, while that music did. This indicates that music preceded language as our way of communicating with each other. He also raises the point that these primitive structures are associated with movement, and that the motor system is able to synchronize the incoming sounds with appropriate body movements. This means that our tendency to move while playing music is more natural than our conscious efforts to be still. Here is the video:

Levitin has also two more recent videos on an experiment he has been conducting on how musicians communicate emotions by manipulating expressive musical elements. He used the piano in his study, and for this instrument, he identified four musical elements normally used by musicians to express emotions: when to hit the key, when to let up the key, how hard to hit the key, and where to put the pedal. He says that all of the expressivity comes from the different combination of these elements. From a scholar perspective, I think that it is impressive that so few items can be responsible for such wide variety of outcomes. From a musician’s point-of-view, or a more romanticized view, however, I think it is like revealing the magic secret, or removing some of the mystique of the music. I guess that we, musicians, are like magicians in that we practice over and over each element of our piece separately, put them together carefully, and then present them as a whole, so that our audience does not notice the parts. In any case, here are Levitin’s videos on his experiment:


About paulomusic

I'm a musician at heart with a passion for playing and for musical instruments. I used to play the oboe professionally for many years but stopped when I started a PhD in educational psychology. Now, I want to bring the music back to my life and also share some ideas about it.
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2 Responses to Music, movement, and emotion (scientifically speaking…)

  1. This is a really interesting discussion. I think some instruments (e.g. violin and piano) lend themselves more readily to moving while playing: the way the instrument is played is implicitly more kinetic and involves larger arm and torso movements. For woodwinds, well, we do our best not to destroy the embouchure without being boring.


  2. paulomusic says:

    Good point about the embouchure, Robin. As woodwind players, our range of motions is a little more limited since changes in the embouchure will affect the sound we are producing. For the oboe, one thing I noticed though is that depending on the style of reed you use, it “allows” you to move more or less. Over the years, I have played with both American and European (more specifically, German) styles of reeds. Although this is no scientific experiment, just personal experience, what I noticed is that the European style allows you to move more the instrument, while that with the American style, the instrument and the head seem to be more of a unit when moving, making the range of movements more limited. Would you agree with that?


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