When Petr Janata tells people he does research into “groove,” he sometimes gets raised eyebrows.
“It generally conjures up associations of bad hair and bad clothes from the ’70s,” says Janata, a professor of psychology at UC Davis.
Groove is just one facet of music that scientists have begun to systematically investigate. Researchers are also looking at things like why music makes us tap our feet, and how it affects our emotions. There aren’t many answers yet, but there are some interesting findings—and a whole lot more questions.
One of the areas Neuroscientist Aniruddh (Ani) Patel studies is why music moves us physically. He does experiments where participants try to tap along with a visual beat, a tactile beat and an auditory beat. Auditory has already been shown to be much stronger than visual. Patel’s hypothesis is that it’s also stronger than tactile.
“The big-picture question behind our research,” he says, “is when it comes to rhythm does the auditory system have a leg up over all other brain systems?”
If so, Patel believes it points to a special coupling between our auditory and motor systems—in other words, the parts of our brain that process sound and movement.
But like most of the research surrounding music, what Patel has found is so far inconclusive.
“Based on this data, I’m not sure,” he says. “I mean, these people are really synchronizing very well with these tactile rhythms, so I could be wrong. That’s what’s great about research, is sometimes you get what you don’t expect.”
Psyche Loui, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Wesleyan University, also studies music. One question she focuses on is how it moves us emotionally. More specifically, she studies “chills.”
Chills are generally known as goose bumps.
“But in our experiments, it has to do with an intense aesthetic experience that people get when they are perceiving some art that’s … strongly emotional to them,” she says. “So it’s that strong emotional response that’s so very tied to a physical response as well.”
Loui says her most interesting findings have to do with the disparity between the people who get chills, and those who never seem to respond to music emotionally.
She says the brains of people who get chills show a stronger connection between the auditory areas and the emotion and social processing areas.
This research could hint at answers to one of the biggest questions in the field: Why has music evolved to be so important in every human culture?
“Maybe what these results are telling us is that we use music as an auditory channel to evoke these emotional responses in other people,” she says. “And in a way we’re using it as an emotional form of communication.”