As I think about all of the things I remember learning from my teachers over the years, it’s funny the things our brain chooses to remember – years, or even decades later.
I’m sure there have been countless moments over the years that were incredibly profound and valuable. But which have since been lost in some hidden corner of my brain or overwritten by some obscure Mario Kart shortcut that seemed vitally important at the time.
Yet I have a particularly vivid memory of a lesson when I was 12, where my teacher asked me to conduct the piece I was working on, while singing out loud.
Of course, I was so self-conscious about singing in front of my teacher, and trying so hard to conduct “correctly,” that the exercise didn’t really have the intended result. But I do remember that the idea behind this was for me to find a way to be more expressive – but in rhythm.
Similarly, violinist Catherine Cho noted in her podcast episode, that there was a time when she used to practice walking in different tempo markings, as a way of embodying or internalizing the pulse more deeply.
Likewise, horn player Julie Landsman (whose podcast episode also explores rhythm) encourages students to tap one’s foot to help feel the rhythm of a passage more in your body, rather than it remaining some abstract mental concept1.
And though I didn’t have a ton of exposure to eurhythmics/Dalcroze as a kid, I do remember taking part in a class or two at some point or another.
The common theme in all of these is a link between movement and timing/rhythm.
So…is this really a thing? Like, is there something about moving our bodies that helps us perceive time or rhythm more accurately?
A timing perception study
A pair of researchers (Manning & Schutz, 2015) recruited 66 participants to participate in a study on the perception of timing in musicians vs. non-musicians.
Half were percussionists, ranging in age from 17 to 42, who had been playing percussion instruments for an average of ~13 years (with a range of 5-33 years).
The other half were non-percussionists, ranging in age from 17-25. Most of them had had some exposure to music as kids, but none had any percussion training, and weren’t pursuing music as a career.
In time? Or late?
The researchers put together a sequence of beats to test everyone’s sense of timing.
Essentially, it was a 5-measure excerpt of beats, in 4/4, with three complete measures, followed by two measures where only the downbeat was audible.
Something like this:
Half of the time, the downbeat of measure five was placed perfectly in time.
But the other half of the time, the downbeat came slightly late – either 75ms or 150ms late. Like so:
The idea was to gauge whether the last note was in time, or late.
Moving vs. staying still
To see if moving physically would enhance the participants timing perception, on half of the repetitions, the participants were asked to tap along to the beats with a drumstick on a drum pad (movement condition).
And on the other half of their repetitions, participants were asked to stay as still as possible. In other words, they were disqualified if researchers caught them bobbing their head, or tapping their finger or foot, or moving their body in some other way (no-movement condition).
After each repetition, they were asked if the last downbeat was played in time or not in time. And then given some feedback on whether they were right or not.
Before we look at the results, do you want to test yourself and see how you do? I put together a click track similar to the one the researchers used, so you can totally try this out. I think it’ll be fun. =)
Put yourself to the test!
You’ll hear four sets of 5-measure click tracks. The first quarter note in each 4/4 bar is a higher pitch than the other three beats, to make it clear which is the downbeat. You’ll hear three complete bars, followed by two bars where you’ll only hear the downbeat. The key beat to listen for is the downbeat of measure 5 – the very last tone you’ll hear. The idea is to gauge whether you think it’s perfectly on time, or late.
For this first round, be sure to hold still and not allow yourself to tap or move your head or body in any way:
Ok! Now, in this next round, feel free to tap with your finger, bob your head, or whatever feels natural to you.
Ready to find out how you did?
Alrightie! Here’s how the clips were presented:
- Clip #1: On time
- Clip #2: Delayed 150ms
- Clip #3: On time
- Clip #4: Delayed 75ms (this is the trickiest one)
- Clip #1: Delayed 150ms
- Clip #2: On time
- Clip #3: On time
- Clip #4: Delayed 75ms
Ready to see if the researchers’ findings were similar to your own experience?
Did physical movement make a difference in timing perception?
As you can probably guess, yes, both the percussionists and the non-percussionists performed better overall when they got to tap out the beats physically, compared to when they had to stay physically still.
However, when the task got harder, and the final beat was delayed by 75ms, things started to diverge a bit. In that while the percussionists continued to do significantly better when tapping out the beats, moving physically didn’t seem to help the non-percussionists all that much.
Which kind of makes sense. I mean, maybe this is where percussionists’ training is evident. Or maybe they just have better rhythm?
Do percussionists have better rhythm?
Well, one of the more intriguing results though, was what happened when participants had to gauge the timing of the final downbeat and were not allowed to move and tap out the beats.
When asked to remain physically still, and keep time purely in their head, there was no difference between the timing perception of the percussionists and non-percussionists.
As in, the percussionists were no more accurate than the non-percussionists in their judgment of whether the final beat was in time or late when they had to remain physically still.
The researchers note that this raises some interesting questions about the source of percussionists’ rhythm superpowers. Like, are their physical movements an important part of how it is that they are able to keep time?
(And as an aside, in case you’ve ever gotten into a debate about this with your percussion buddies, yes, studies do suggest that percussionists, in general, may have a more highly tuned sense of timing and rhythm than other musicians (Ehrlé & Samson, 2005; Krause et al., 2010).)
The main caveat here, of course, is that this study looked at perception of timing in the context of metronomic rhythm. Which may be a different sort of thing than expressive rhythm, where you add rubato into the mix and there’s a lot more wiggle room – yet there still remains a need to maintain an accurate and predictable sense of pulse.
But all things considered, I do think it makes sense that our bodies would be an integral tool in keeping better time and playing with better rhythm.
So…whether it’s quietly tapping your foot, wiggling a toe in your shoe, or being more mindful of your hand/arm/body movements when playing as it relates to how you shape a phrase, make a leap, or shift from one note to another. Or whether it’s accurately keeping time in a rest when playing an orchestral excerpt, or holding a long note and releasing it at exactly the right moment, I think the research suggests that there is something to be gained by keeping time not just in our heads, but with our bodies as well.
Much like how my teacher, and Catherine Cho, Julie Landsman, and many other musicians have described doing in their own playing and practicing. And in their teaching too (much to the chagrin of their mortified self-conscious teenage students in the short term, but everlasting gratitude a decade or two later).
Manning, F. C., & Schutz, M. (2015). Trained to keep a beat: movement-related enhancements to timing perception in percussionists and non-percussionists. Psychological Research, 80(4), 532–542. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-015-0678-5