Thursday 29 November 2012

Feeling the Beat

It’s a Thursday morning, and I’m leading a Music Circle Time at the local drop-in playcentre.  The kids are enthusiastic and adorable: mostly one- and two-year-olds, some infants, and a handful of older preschoolers, all eager to sing, dance, jump, twirl, tap and shake.  I run through a repertoire of fun songs that all involve some kind of movement.  Even for sit-down songs with no obvious actions (like “Old MacDonald had a Farm”, for example), we clap or tap to the beat.  This keeps the kids engaged, but more importantly, it activates their sense of rhythm.  Literally, they “feel” the beat of the music.

If you stop to think about this phrase, “feeling the beat”, you might find it a bit odd.  Listening to music is something we do with our hearing, not our sense of touch, right?  Surely we don’t actually feel the beat any more than we can smell the colour in a painting.  In fact, that’s not entirely true.  A recent study (Huang et al., 2012) published in PLoS ONE looked at how we use different senses to “feel” the beat in music, and found that we can perceive musical beat and meter with both hearing and touch, and not only that, but the two types of sensory information are integrated together in the brain. 

Before we get into this, let me explain what I mean by meter.  Music almost always has a regular beat to it, and when we listen to these beats, we hear them grouped into patterns of strong beats and weak beats.  A slow waltz, for example, will have a pattern of strong - weak - weak, strong - weak - weak, etc.  This is known as triple meter.  A march would have a pattern of strong - weak - strong - weak; this is duple meter.  Studies have shown that even if the music is generated such that it doesn’t actually contain strong and weak beats, people will impose a meter upon the music and think of it as either duple or triple meter.

In the Huang study, the subjects had to identify whether they thought the meter of a rhythm was duple or triple.  This identification was based either on the pattern of accents put into the rhythm (i.e. some beats were made to be louder and sound or feel like strong beats), or based simply on whether there was generally a note or a rest where we would expect the strong beat to be.  The subjects were able to tell easily whether the rhythm was duple or triple when the rhythm was presented as an audible series of notes (i.e. using hearing) or when the rhythm was presented as a series of taps on the subject’s hand (i.e. using touch).  This is not a new result – previous studies have shown that we are quite good a recognizing rhythm using touch (although, interestingly, not with vision).  

Where this new study showed something really interesting was when the subjects had to recognize the meter using both hearing and touch.  In this part of the experiment, some of the beats were presented as audible notes, and some of the beats were presented as taps on the hand.  The subjects had to integrate both modalities in order to identify whether the meter was triple or duple.  And the study showed that they could, although it was easiest to identify the meter if all the strong beats were presented in a single modality, e.g. all the strong beats were taps on the hand and the weak beats were audible notes.  If the two different modalities of sensing rhythm were given information that interfered with each other (i.e. the notes going to touch felt like duple meter, and the notes going to hearing sounded like triple meter), the subjects had a much harder time figuring out what meter the combined rhythm was in, showing that the two types of inputs interact to a great extent.  The auditory information tends to be dominant, having a greater influence on meter perception than touch.

This study reminds me of a classic paper published in the journal Science in 2005, from Laurel Trainor’s lab.  This classic study used metrically ambiguous music (i.e. could be interpreted as duple or triple), and had infants bounced to the beat in either two or three.  Then the music was played back to the infants with accents added so that it was clearly either in duple or triple meter, and the infants preferred the meter in which they had been bounced.  The researchers concluded that this effect was probably due to vestibular (balance) input interacting with auditory input.  The main point was that body movement plays an important role in rhythm perception.

All of this suggests that in order to help students with their rhythm and meter, we should take advantage of the integration of auditory musical information with movement and touch sensation.  This works just as well with older students as it does with my little ones at the playcentre.  The more senses we can enlist to help students feel the beat, the better.

For instance, the teacher could play the piece while the student marches, bounces, dances or moves in some way to the beat.  With younger children, the parents can bounce them on the strong beats.  This leaves the movement to someone who presumably can feel the meter.  Having the children move on their own may be useful but if they are not feeling the beat already, asking them to move may not improve it.  There are other options, rather than having the students get up and move:  the student could sway to the beat while playing, or nod their head.  Movement of the head strongly activates the vestibular system, so this is probably a better reinforcer of meter than having the student just tap their foot.  That being said, clapping and tapping are also useful, although having the student move their whole leg (“walking” their feet while sitting down) is more effective than just tapping, since the bigger the movement, the better.  The teacher or parent could also tap the beat on the student’s shoulder while they are playing, remembering to accent the strong beats.  In this way, they are receiving both touch and auditory information about the meter.

I’m sure there are many other ways to incorporate touch and balance into our daily interactions with music.  I’d be interested in other ideas – please share what works for you!


Huang, J., Gamble, D., Sarnlertsophon, K., Wang, X., and Hsiao, S. (2012). Feeling Music: Integration of Auditory and Tactile Inputs in Musical Meter Perception. PLoS ONE 7, e48496.

Phillips-Silver, J., and Trainor, L.J. (2005). Feeling the Beat: Movement Influences Infant Rhythm Perception. Science 308, 1430–1430.