Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Musical Beat Enhances Visual Comprehension

• May 13, 2010 • 2:00 PM

New research finds a link between musical rhythm and visual processing, and offers a tantalizing clue to the art form’s origins.

The origins of music are, necessarily, speculative. Charles Darwin guessed it grew out of courtship rituals, which would explain the continuing popularity of love songs. But a more recent school of thought suggests it emerged to enhance group cooperation and synchronization.

As neuroscientist Steven Brown put it, “Music is a powerful device for promoting group identity, cognition, coordination and catharsis.” All of which would come in handy when a party of prehistoric humans headed out in search of food or when one tribe was threatened by another.

Indirect support for this thesis is provided in a study just published in the journal Acta Psychologica. In it, a research team led by psychologist Nicolas Escoffier of the National University of Singapore provides evidence that a musical beat “both synchronizes and facilitates concurrent stimulus processing.”

Their research suggests rhythm (say, in the form of a drum beat, which continues to play a role in military rituals) helps you to quickly understand what it is you’re looking at. This could save your life if you spot a shape that could be either a lion or a rock, and its advantages multiply if you and your hunting partners come to such crucial realizations simultaneously.

Escoffier and his colleagues recruited 36 undergraduates (all of Chinese ancestry) to participate in a visual discrimination test. They were shown a series of photographs — half featuring faces, the other half houses — and instructed to indicate as quickly as possible (by pressing one of two buttons) whether an image was right side up or upside down.

They were told to ignore the music playing in the background, but those sounds were in fact the key to the experiment. For one-third of the test, the appearance of the images was synchronized with the beat. For another third, the images were shown out of sync with the music. The other third were shown in silence.

The results: The students responded faster when there was music playing, and still faster when the appearance of a new image matched the beat of the music. They were able to identify the direction of the faces more rapidly than that of the houses in all three conditions, but the same ratio held: Their swiftest reactions took place when the musical rhythm and the change in image were in sync. (The accuracy rate was around 95 percent for all three conditions; what varied was the speed of the realization.)

Why would hearing music affect visual processing? Escoffier and his colleagues suggest two possible processes. Auditory rhythms have been shown to enhance physiological arousal, which could lead to heightened attention. Alternatively, an insistent rhythm may trigger “changes in attention allocation policies,” alerting the brain to focus its limited resources on the matter at hand.

Either way, “musical rhythm appears to be a powerful modulator of human cognitive processes, enhancing their efficiency and allowing synchronization across a group of individuals,” they conclude. “Through this synchronization, individuals collectively experience their environment and are able to feel, think, and act as one.”

Thus the thrill of sitting in a concert hall and engaging in a mass brain-bond with Beethoven or Bono. To paraphrase George and Ira Gershwin: I got rhythm/And clear vision/We’re all in sync/Who could ask for anything more?

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.