Moving with the music: McGill researchers learning how our brains keep the beat

Most of us can tap our foot in time with the music, play team sports or make it safely across the street while hearing loud oncoming traffic.

But cognitive neuroscientists have always wondered how we synchronize our movements with the sounds we hear.

A team of researchers at McGill University, led by Psychology Professor Caroline Palmer, decided to study the beat perceptions of musicians to learn more about an ability many people take for granted.

The three authors of the study, published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, are all musicians themselves and know what it’s like when a fellow performer is not keeping time with the others, so they were particularly interested in understanding how musicians' brains would respond to the experiments.

They used EEG technology (electroencephalography) which involves placing electrodes on the participant’s scalp to measure brain activity, as they tried to synchronize their tapping with a series of simple, moderate and complex beats.

The EEG results allowed the researchers to identify neural markers that demonstrated the ability of the musician’s brain to align with the rhythms they were hearing.

Professor Palmer said they learned that the answer to the their question doesn’t lie with listening or movement, rather “it’s a linking of the brain rhythm to the auditory rhythm.”

“We were surprised that even highly trained musicians sometimes showed reduced ability to synchronize with complex rhythms, and that was reflected in the EEGs,” said co-first authors Brian Mathias and Anna Zamm, in a communique.

The PhD students in Professor Palmer’s lab also said that while most musicians are good synchronizers, “this signal was sensitive enough to distinguish the ‘good’ from the ‘better’ or ‘super-synchronizers’, as we sometimes call them.”

Watch the video above for more details.

SIGN UP NOW

Stay up-to-date and in-the-know by subscribing to one of our newsletters