The Resonant Human: The Science of How Tempo Affects Us

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Image courtesy of Flickr user Derek Gavey.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Derek Gavey.

You’re walking along, enjoying some of your favorite music on a pair of headphones, when all of a sudden you realize you’re re-enacting Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” video, stepping in time to the music like someone on a mission: Left foot in sync with a bass drum, right foot with the snare, or vice versa.

Depending on your disposition, you might feel emboldened or embarrassed. If it’s the latter, take heart. There may be biological reasons why your steps fit so well with the song’s tempo. As a human, you may not be able to help yourself.

The Human Frequency

Human beings can distinguish a range of tempos from around 40 to 300 beats per minute. When the pulse slows below 40 bpm, we may not be able to identify or recall a discernible pattern. When it goes faster than 300 bpm, repetitions start to blur into a continuous tone.

In between 40 and 300 bpm, there’s a lot of real estate for us to play around in. The history of popular music, however, suggests that we mostly enjoy a relatively narrow range of tempos.

In 2011, students at Brazil’s Federal University of Minas Gerais mined tempo data from the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, the Billboard 200 album chart, and the Million Song Dataset for a tempo visualization project. They found that from the 1940s until our current decade, the average tempo of our most popular songs fluctuated no more than 5 bpm, hovering between 117 bpm to 122 bpm.

Two graduate students from Rutgers University obtained similar results when analyzing popular music tempo data provided by The Echo Nest—the same “musical intelligence” company that provides the data for the Million Song Dataset.\

“Looks like most songs linger right around that optimal figure of 119.80 BPM,” Shaun Ellis and Tom Engelhardt wrote of their collected data.  “Also, hits between 1976 and 1984 displayed rather mono-rhythmic qualities, with few year averages drifting above or below the golden mark.”

Dirk Moelants, a musicologist and assistant at the department of musicology at The University of Ghent, argues that a ‘preferred tempo’ around 120 bpm is a part of our biology. His 2002 paper for the 7th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, titled “Preferred Tempo Reconsidered”, challenged psychologist Paul Fraisse’s previous conclusion that preferred tempo was somewhere in the range of 100 bpm.

The results of several isolated experiments that asked participants to tap fingers, walk, or applaud at their own tempo, showed participants moving naturally at a tempo of around 120 bpm (or a 500ms delay in between pulses).

A 2005 paper by Hamish G. MacDougall and Steven T. Moorefor the Journal of Applied Physiology, titled “Marching to the beat of the same drummer: the spontaneous tempo of human locomotion”, took Moelants’ research a step further, monitoring a group of human subjects and their motions not just in the lab, but also in the course of a typical 10-hour day.

Twenty subjects were given baseball caps with attached activity monitors in order to record the tempo of their linear head movements during athletic activities such as running and cycling, and mostly-static activities such as working on a computer or riding a bus.

Here we show a highly tuned resonant frequency of human locomotion at 2 Hz [about 120 bpm] with no evidence of correlation with gender, age, height, weight, or body mass index,” MacDougall and Moore wrote. “We speculate that this spontaneous tempo of locomotion represents some form of central ‘resonant frequency’ of human movement.

Tempo and Emotion

Slow music, generally, makes us feel sad. Fast music tends to make us happier, unless it is in a minor mode or rhythmically fragmented, in which case it can inspire fear.

These concepts are generally accepted these days, but until psychologist Kate Hevner Mueller began conducting experiments in the 1930s, we had no real proof of just how profound this effect is. Mueller asked her participants to express their emotions regarding different pieces of music in which only one defining characteristic—such as pitch, mode, or tempo—had changed. She concluded that tempo influenced our emotions more than any other characteristic.

Over 60 years later, Lise Gagnon and Isabelle Peretz of the University of Montreal performed similar experiments, isolating and changing individual musical characteristics and reached the same conclusion: “The results confirm that both mode and tempo determine “happy-sad” judgments in isolation, with the tempo being more salient, even when tempo salience was adjusted.”

Emotional response to changing tempos may explain why we don’t always prefer our “preferred” tempo: Human emotions range all over the map. If the constant, 120 bpm average of charting pop hits represents our platonic ideal of natural balance, then tempos far above or below that range represent the rest of the roller-coaster ride we call ‘life’.

The angst and nihilism of The Buzzcocks’ “Boredom” slashes through our ears at around 180 bpm. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five paint the tension of inner-city life in “The Message”—one of hip-hop’s first bonafide hits—at around 100 bpm. Bette Midler regularly inspires waterworks with her 60 bpm ode to an overshadowed friend, “The Wind Beneath My Wings”. 120bpm is our safe place, and the further we get from it tempo-wise, the more volatile we become.

What’s Your Tempo?

In the 1970s, Georgi Lozanov developed the teaching method now known as “Suggestopedia”, claiming it could help children learn foreign languages three to five times faster than average.

A central conceit of Suggestopedia is the use of music in the classroom, particularly Baroque music played at a “largo” tempo of about 60 bpm, which he claimed aided memory retention. Playing music at or below the tempo of a healthy resting human heart, so the theory goes, relaxes children, thereby improving their ability to learn.

Some have debated the science behind Lozanov’s claims, but UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) found no fault in his results. In 1978, their report on Suggestopedia declared: “There is consensus that Suggestopedia is a generally superior teaching method for many subjects and for many types of students, compared with traditional methods.”

Image courtesy of Flickr user Paco Vila

Image courtesy of Flickr user Paco Vila

For improving physical performance, Dr. Costas Karageorghis of England’s Brunel University suggests music with tempos of 120 bpm to 140 bpm during exercise, when our hearts beat in a similar range.

In the 2006 paper he co-authored with Peter C. Terry, “Psychophysical Effects of Music in Sport and Exercise: An Update on Theory, Research and Application”, Karageorghis found that 400m runners recorded faster times when their movements were synchronized with music.

Non-athletes exercising in sync to music benefit just as much, Karageorghis adds in an interview for Welsh sprinter Colin Jackson’s Raise Your Game website:

“[Music] can reduce our perception of effort by as much as 10%. So, for example, a 66 minute cycle can feel like a 60 minute cycle with music.” By syncing with music faster than our preferred tempo, we can basically trick our bodies into working harder for longer.

Scientists are still uncertain as to which part or parts of the brain control musical activity—let alone where our perception of tempo occurs and why our bodies prefer certain tempos to others.

A romantic yet unconfirmed notion revolves around our heartbeats: 60 bpm – 80 bpm in relatively healthy adults, or exactly half of the range of tempos we naturally exhibit during basic locomotion and exercise. Perhaps we are twice as fast to act on instinct as we are to act with what is truly in our heart.

At least now we know exactly what it means to say music has “a good beat to dance to”.

Blake Madden is a musician and author who lives in Seattle.

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  • DPrty

    Bravo. Good read. Thanks.

  • pauncy

    Fascinating article, thanks!

  • Danwriter

    Excellent read.

  • Warren Bloom

    great read. I will use this. I am creating a fitness music project

  • Sam Miller

    Saying that slower music elicits sadness is an over simplification–a lot depends upon tonality–e.g., minor vs major–and type of rhythm/degree of syncopation. Slower music such as reggae, with its upbeat/offbeat rhythm, can imply a sense of relaxed joy and easy-goingness–what’s the rush?

  • Diana Elena Hughineata

    So nice 🙂