Let the Music Move You

Body language can help make good music great... and understanding its impact can improve lives, whether you're a musician or not.


What separates a good band from a great band? A new study from McMaster University suggests that it could be body language.

In the study published last week in PNAS, a research team led by Professor Laurel Trainor found that synchronization of swaying movements in string quartets was related to how well the musicians rated their performance.

Measuring music

Music and research meet at the McMaster LIVELab. You could be listening to a piece of live music while having your brain waves and heart rate recorded. You could be listening to sounds and watching a huge video screen while recording your thoughts and comments on a tablet in real-time. Or, as in the case of this study, you could be wearing a motion capture device while playing in a string quartet.

Specifically, this study measured the back and forth swaying motions of two internationally recognized string quartets while they played 24 different pieces of music – 12 from the baroque period and 12 from the classical period.

What the researchers found was that the musicians’ movements tended to synchronize with the person that was designated as the leader, even though the remaining three performers were not told who the leader was. This effect was greater if the musicians could see each other, suggesting that seeing your co-performers is important, despite having a sheet of music with the notes and the tempo.

Finally, the greater the degree of synchronization, the better the musicians thought they had performed.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that synchronization actually correlated with better performance. To answer this question, the team is looking to perform the same study with simultaneous rating by professional music critics.

No words necessary

The score technically provides a musician with all the information they need to play a piece, but there is always some interpretation of phrasing, dynamics, and expression that is specific to the musician. That’s why the same song can sound very different depending on who plays it. This research provides some insight into how musicians can silently communicate these subtleties during a performance.

But even if you’re not in a band or a string quartet, non-verbal communication is an important part of your daily life – sometimes a single touch or gesture can be worth a thousand words. It can even be subconscious, so you don’t even realize how much non-verbal signals affect your perceptions, your actions, your likes and dislikes.

For some people, such as those with autism or dementia, non-verbal communication may be the primary means of expression. Trainor’s team hopes that this research will lead to a better understanding of non-verbal communication so that it can be used more effectively.

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Malgosia Pakulska is a freelance science writer, speaker, and blogger. She completed her PhD in Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab studying drug delivery systems for spinal cord regeneration after injury. She is still passionate about research and wants to share that excitement with the public. When she is not in the lab, she is experimenting in the kitchen and blogging about it at Smart Cookie Bakes.