What is musicality?

Let's try this on as a simple, working definition: A dance is musical when it looks and feels like the music sounds. But how can a look or a feeling be like a sound? I don't have a complete answer to this and, as far as I know, no one else does yet either. But let's discuss some clues.

Sights are sounds: Synesthesia

There is a fascinating phenomenon called synesthesia, which is well studied in perceptual psychology. Synesthesia is a cross-over between senses (sight, hearing, taste...), in which particular experiences from one sense are accompanied by experiences from another sense. For example, a synesthete (a person with synesthesia) may see the colour red when hearing a middle C. An E might be green, a D blue, and so on. Synthesesia comes in all shapes and sizes and sometimes produces strange effects within a single sense; a synesthete friend of mine once told me that she always sees particular letters and numbers in particular colours, regardless of the colour of the text she's looking at (though she's also able to see that colour too; she's conscious of both at once). So, the number 1, for example, is always experienced as yellow, even if the font colour is black. A famous example is an incident in which an accomplished composer/musician visited a tailor and ordered 'a suit in the key of C major'.

Last I read about the subject -- some years ago now -- the prevailing brain science explanation for synesthesia was that neurons in the parts of the brain that deal with different senses would establish connections with each other, which don't exist in most people's brains. These connections would allow the neurons to 'talk' to each other, producing effects that most people don't experience. As it happens, all these regions are located nearby to each other (the whole cluster is called the sensory cortex) in an area at the top of your head, about half way along, called the parietal lobe. This proximity means it's easy for connections to form between visual and auditory neurons, for example. When particular visual neurons fire they might cause connected auditory neurons to fire, and this causes an auditory experience to accompany the visual experience.

Synesthesia is a clear demonstration of natural overlaps between experiences in different senses but it doesn't happen to everyone; it is a 'disorder' affecting a small minority. On the other hand, musicality in dancing seems to be recognisable to everyone. How can we account for this?

Musicality as a quirk of language evolution

Language is among the most intensely studied fields in psychology. It has been argued that humans, uniquely among animals, have an innate capacity for complex language with properties like grammar (Read Stephen Pinker or Noam Chomsky if you want to look into this). It is thought that there are universal laws underlying the grammatical structures in different languages (that is, universal rules about how the specific rules arise). By this theory, the most basic laws of language are hereditary, and these are applied as a child learns particular languages provided by his/her environment.

There are various ideas about how this 'language instinct' evolved in humans. Some authors, like Pinker, argue that language was itself an adaptive trait (it helped our ancient ancestors to survive and reproduce by improving their ability to communicate and work together) and evolved through natural selection. Others, like Chomsky, argue that language appeared as a byproduct of other adaptations. Both of these positions -- the former in particular -- are faced with the challenge of explaining the process of language evolution. What primitive communication strategies came before the complex
languages that eventually evolved? As far as I know, there are a number of competing theories about these early communication systems but I'd like to focus one popular one: that gesture -- visual and tactile language -- was one such early strategy, and verbal/auditory language was gradually added to systems of gestural communication before evolving to dominate them. This resulted in the verbal language systems we have today, where talking/listening is primary and gesture plays a lesser but important part.

By now you might be wondering, what does all this have to do with musicality in dance? Current theories in the psychology of music (see for example, Daniel Levitin's book, 'This is your brain on music') hold that humans' unique capacity for music production and appreciation are a by-product of our unique, evolved capacity for language. Music and language share many fundamental features. Both exploit tone, rhythm, pitch, pause, etc. It can even be shown that the structures in music obey grammatical laws, partly innate and partly culturally defined, just like in language (see Levitin's book).

Echoes of early language evolution can still be seen in the way that people communicate today. Gesture is still a natural part of verbal communication. It might be tempting to write this off as coincidence but there is compelling evidence for a deep, innate capacity for association between visual shapes and sounds. In 1929, the German-American psychologist, Wolfgang Koehler did an experiment in which participants were shown the following two shapes,

and asked which assignment of the two names 'Bouba' and 'Kiki' seemed most natural to them, based only on the sounds of the names and the appearance of the shapes. There was 98% agreement that the shape on the left is the Kiki and the one on the right, the Bouba. 98%! The explanation for this result remains controversial but prevailing theories are based on the above-explained connection between shape and sound, that evolved for communication purposes.

Given that current theories about music psychology trace the roots of music to language evolution, it seems reasonable that the echoes of early language evolution should also be seen in how people interpret and communicate music. We might expect that there should be natural, innate associations between musical sounds and gestures, the latter being made up of shapes and movements. And, importantly, those associations should be shared throughout the population. It is not hard to see how a natural theory of dance musicality emerges from these ideas. Anyone who has ever been to a dance contest and listened to the cheering will know that the crowd tends to agree when the competitors do something particularly musical! This recognition applies not just to momentary shapes but also to whole trajectories of dance. A sequence of tone-matching shapes, strung together through movements that match the musical dynamics and end in a visual full-stop coinciding with a 'break' in the music seem to exemplify innate associations between sounds, shapes, motions, and overall grammatical structure.

This is musicality; a delicious remnant of our evolutionary past.

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