We found that music and movement express emotion similarly because they have the same dynamic structure and that this similarity is cross-cultural. This helps explain why music moves us literally and figuratively, the world over. 

Credit: Joe Hanson of it's Okay To Be Smart


how we did it

Beau Sievers wrote a program that presents a user with five slider bars.  Each slider bar corresponds to one of five dynamic features:  Rate, Regularity of rate, Direction (up/down), Size (big/small), and Smoothness. The sliders operate in real time. By manipulating the slider bars, a person can alter the music notes being played or the animation being shown. For example, manipulating the RATE slider makes the notes play faster and the animated ball bounce faster.

The fact that the program uses the same features to create music and movement allows us to test whether emotion is really expressed the same way for music and movement. Does angry music have the same dynamics as angry movement? This would help explain why music can "move" us -- why humans everywhere dance to music and why music is so important for creating group cohesion (synchrony) and ritual.

We asked college students to create five different emotional expressions (angry, happy, sad, peaceful, and scared) using the sliders. We found that they placed the slider bars in a particular, distinct configuration for each emotion. Most importantly this configuration was the same regardless of whether they were trying to express that emotion in music or movement. 

To find out whether these crossmodal emotional expressions are universal, we took our program to a remote tribal village in Cambodia. Villagers had never used computers before or been exposed to Western music and yet created the five emotional expressions in the same way as our Dartmouth college students. Thus, these emotional expressions are crosscultural and crossmodal. Perhaps, most importantly this study provides evidence for the fundamental link between music and movement -- they share a dynamic structure.    

Sievers, B., Polansky, L., Casey, M., & Wheatley, T. (2013).  Music and movement share a dynamic structure that supports universal expressions of emotion.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.