“Where people are singing, it’s safe for you to sit down. Bad people have no songs.” This German saying summarizes a central theme of Dan Bowling’s research. In order to extend this maxim to a short version of the so-called synchrony and sociality hypothesis, one should add: people who jointly tap their feet, sit, play music or sing together, are also well attuned behaviour-wise, which leads to more affinity and prosocial behaviour in the group. Prosocial behaviour includes, for example, liking each other, trusting each other or wanting to cooperate with one another. A common rhythm could help to get in sync with a group, i. e. to coordinate, which results in less social stress. Supported by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, the neurobiologist Dan Bowling wants to test this hypothesis with unimpeachable methods: “There is increasing evidence that humans are the only living creatures who spontaneously exhibit this strange behaviour: when they hear a repetitive rhythmic pulse they will jiggle, rock or tap along with it after a while. The question is why music has such a strong effect on people.”
What does music do to the body?
As one can observe in children, movement to rhythmic musical patterns seems to be deeply rooted in human biology. Moreover, before the invention of the gramophone, listening or dancing to music was usually a communal experience. Dan Bowling wants to find physical proof in the body of this deeply human behaviour, the urge to move in time with music. The unit of measurement for the appeal of music that inspires us to move in keeping with it is the “groove”. In previous experiments concerning rhythm and synchronicity, people “grooved” together and were then asked how they felt and how well they got along with the other group members. Bowling, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna, considers this to be a rather weak benchmark for such a central question. He wants to demonstrate the power of music on the basis of psycho-physiological parameters such as pupil dilation, heart rate or respiratory rate, as well as hormone status.
How does the groove get us going?
With the FWF’s support, Dan Bowling and his team have been conducting various experiments at the rhythm and movement lab since 2015 within the context of a Lise-Meitner grant. In a series of experiments, 32 people (equally split between women and men) were made to listen to pieces of music which were categorised – on the basis of scientifically proven and tested principles – as having “a lot of groove” or “little groove”. At both ends of the groove scale, tempo and volume were then varied during the experiment. The scientists measured changes in pupil size in the listeners, because involuntary dilation is an unmistakable sign of excitement or stimulation.
As the results indicate, the groove value of the music lies in the overall structure, not only in the tempo and volume. In the second round, only very groovy music was played, and the bass frequencies were enhanced or reduced. The result was surprising: “While the bass is commonly believed to be the stimulating element, we found that people react more to higher frequencies than to amplified bass frequencies. Listening to the entire bandwidth – from treble to bass – probably helps people to sense the beat pattern precisely and ultimately join in,” says Bowling in the interview with scilog. In the third experimental setting, syncopation was used to “announce” a beat. The syncopes were set to be either constant or variable. The neurobiologist can tell from the data that syncopation helps to predict the rhythmic pattern. If you know what is coming, you can anticipate movements and coordinate them even better.
Singing in a chorus reduces stress
In order to investigate the effects of music within a group, the researcher accompanied a 90-strong youth choir and measured the level of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva samples. Subgroups were given the tasks of singing and reading aloud, alone or with the group. A decrease in stress hormone levels was detected in all activities. Given that the totality of the data have not yet been evaluated, it is possible that a positive effect of the group could still be discovered. What can be seen, however, is that singing lowers the cortisol level more than reading, and that men show greater cortisol reduction than women. The team also tested the saliva samples for the hormone oxytocin, often referred to in media parlance as a cuddling hormone, which is assumed to promote the formation of social bonds. Oxytocin has been shown to have biological functions in motherhood and couples. Among the choir members, saliva samples showed no increase in this hormone: “Things are probably more complicated than we think. In our experiments we were able to observe a decrease of the oxytocin level. The social bonds of each member with the other 89 members of the choir cannot be attributed to just one hormone,” says Bowling.
Dan Bowling studied psychology, cognitive science and philosophy at the University of California San Diego and holds a PhD in Neurobiology from Duke University (North Carolina). Since 2012 he has been a postdoc in the Tecumseh Fitch working group at the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna. His research at the rhythm and movement lab relates to cognitive science, experimental psychology and evolutionary biology with a focus on voice mechanics/audio perception and music.