Why music moves us: Cross-cultural evidence for shared emotional dynamics in music and movement

Music moves us, literally. All human cultures dance to music, and its kinetic power is used in everything from military marches and political rallies to social gatherings and romance. The music-movement relationship is so fundamental that in many languages, the words for music and dance are interchangeable. However, despite its centrality to human experience, an explanation for the link between music and movement has been elusive.

A new study we published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that music and movement are linked because they share the same dynamic structure. That is, events in music and movement are organized in the same way in time. This common structure allows the same emotions to be expressed in music and in movement. We showed that this is true both in the United States and in an isolated tribal village in rural Cambodia. This suggests that the structural similarity between music and movement exists for all people, everywhere in the world, and serves as a canvas for emotional expression.

In order to test our hypothesis that music and movement share a dynamic structure, we picked five features that are common to both music and movement: rate, regularity, step size, up/down direction, and smoothness (consonance). We turned these five features into a computer program of five slider bars that participants could move around. Half of our participants were in the music condition and used the sliders to change music they heard. The other half of participants were in the movement condition and used the sliders to manipulate the bouncing of an animated ball. For both the music and movement groups, each feature (slider) had an equivalent effect. For example, moving the rate slider changed how fast the notes played or how fast the ball bounced.

Once participants were comfortable with how the slider bars worked, we asked them to create each of five emotions: happy, angry, peaceful, sad, and scared. The critical question was whether people who used music to express a particular emotion set the slider bars to the same positions as people who expressed that emotion with the moving ball. They did. Each emotion had a particular dynamic signature that was the same whether people were creating music or movement. Further, we found that this result held true across cultures. We took the slider bar program to a remote Kreung village in northeastern Cambodia where people had never before used computers. The Kreung created emotions in music and movement in the same way as college students in the US.

These findings show two important things: 1) music and movement share a dynamic structure; 2) the link between music, movement and emotion is also cross-cultural. This extends the existing research on cross-cultural expressions of emotion and suggests that music’s expressivity may ultimately be derived from the evolutionary link between emotion and movement.

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  • I'm an ecologist, and I think this study did a great job of testing something that seems simultaneously quite difficult to measure but rather intuitive. Great job!

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  • Any thoughts on how someone who is deaf/hearing impaired may perceive the movement portion of your test?

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  • This is awesome.


    1) What was your sample size?

    2) If you do this experiment on babies, toddlers, do you think you will get the same results? if not, how different do you expect them to be? I'm assuming that they will be, but it will be interesting to see the data.

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  • My very basic understanding of kinetic energy and power seem to be at odds with your usage in your second sentence. In your first sentence, you say that music "literally" moves us, when that is very obviously hyperbole.

    How do you justify couching what seems to be a moderately good scientific study in ridiculously imprecise and incorrect language? While connecting with the average person is the goal here, does that not require at least a passing attempt to use language properly?

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  • The phrase "Music moves us, literally" is used to convey the idea that we actually move (through dance) in response to music, in contrast to music just figuratively "moving" us (through creating an emotion). I wouldn't call it "ridiculously imprecise" language; the average reader probably comes to the topic equipped with enough knowledge to know that the sound waves themselves are not causing the motion. Of course by that definition it IS imprecise, but "ridiculously" seems a bit harsh. 

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  • I agree with Joe, what is meant here is that we physically move because of music. It is a literal (though not proximate) cause of our literal (physical) movement. 

    And by the way, Sam's Mom, you might want consider making your criticism sound less arrogant. It doesn't make you sound smart, just mean.

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  • Bonnie -- thanks for the nice words! You’re exactly right that the idea for a connection was pretty intuitive (indeed many had thought of it before us). The new piece –as you point out – was the computer program (created by Beau Sievers) that allowed us to test that intuition. We are pretty proud of this work but it is really nice to hear that others like it too. Thank you for taking the time to post!

    John, that is a fascinating question. I’m going to look into whether there is a deaf population I can test. Do you have a prediction as to what we would find? My hunch is that people who are deaf would create the emotion ball animations similarly to our hearing participants (i.e., hearing emotion is not required to tune up our sensitivity to seeing emotion), but I don't know for sure and, even if the groups were similar, there could still be interesting differences. It would be worth finding out!

    Roldie -- First, thank you. To answer your questions: 1) The sample sizes were 50 (US) and 85 (Kreung). For each population half did the music version and half did the movement (bouncing ball) version of the task. 2) I would love to do this study with infants and/or very young children. The cross-cultural result suggests that there is something biological rather than cultural going on here. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that infants would respond like adults as experience may still play a role. Some fantastic work has been conducted with infants –primarily beat perception -- but, to my knowledge, nothing like this has been attempted. We couldn’t get babies to manipulate the sliders of course, but we could try a preferential looking paradigm to see if they look more at the happy ball than the angry ball while simultaneously hearing happy music (i.e., whether they "match" the dynamics). It would also be interesting to see what young children do when they *can* do the sliders task. Would a 3 year old create “sad” in the same way as an adult? If there are any developmental researchers out there interested in collaborating, please get in touch!

    Sam’s mom – I think Joe and Bonnie did a nice job of explaining what I meant by using the word "literally" in the first sentence. Thanks Joe and Bonnie.
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  • ps: There is a link to the paper (pdf incl. supplementary materials) at the bottom of this page:


    Sievers, B., Polansky L., Casey M., & Wheatley T. (2012). Music and movement share a dynamic structure that supports universal expressions of emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi:10.1073/pnas.1209023110

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  • A short video about the study just got posted by It's Okay to be Smart (PBS digital studios):


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  • Music and Emotions

    The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can't convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

    An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will "I don't want any more...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want any more..." with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words "I don't want anymore..." the first time softly and the second time loudly.
    Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

    But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called "lead", "leading tone" or "striving effects". If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change - but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

    Further information is available via the free download of the e-book "Music and Emotion - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:


    or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:


    Enjoy reading

    Bernd Willimek
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