The Resonant Human: The Science of How Tempo Affects Us

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.

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