Journal of
Music and Dance

  • Abbreviation: J. Music Dance
  • Language: English
  • ISSN: 2360-8579
  • DOI: 10.5897/JMD
  • Start Year: 2011
  • Published Articles: 23

Full Length Research Paper

When the music moves you: Revisiting the classics in the company of neuroscience

Susan E. Pashman
  • Susan E. Pashman
  • Boston Architectural College, P.O. 2530, Sag Harbor, New York, 11963, U.S.
  • Google Scholar

  •  Received: 05 June 2014
  •  Accepted: 02 September 2014
  •  Published: 30 September 2014



When the music moves you, you dance. The bodily movement that develops in response to music is what is here considered “dance.” Philosophers have long understood music as possessing the power to move us. This paper employs Heinrich Wolfflin’s theory of “sympathetic modeling”—a theory recently validated by neuroscientists’ discovery of mirror neurons in humans—and Antonio Damasio’s neurobiological model of emotion to establish the mediating links between music and the bodily movements made in response. The first “motion” elicited by hearing music is, as Wolfflin suggested, an unconscious “sympathetic modeling,” an internal vocalization of what is heard; this activity involves muscular expansions and contractions. Signals of muscle movement are relayed to the brain by receptor cells imbedded in the muscles. In complex responses, the brain receives patterns of movement from throughout the entire body. When these whole-body kinesthetic sensations are made conscious as perceptions of a unified self, they enter awareness as subjectively felt emotion: the felt response to music. Such patterns of muscular stretching can be abstracted from the sort of external experience that produces emotion in ordinary life experience and reproduced at will. Thus, a dancer, by deliberately reproducing a pattern of muscle stretching, can re-create a chosen specific emotion. This activity constitutes “expressing” emotion in bodily movement. Performed in response to the emotion elicited by music, it is the expressive gesture of dance. One viewing the dance “understands” the emotion expressed by, once again, employing sympathetic modeling to reconstruct the internal pattern of movement associated with that emotion. In popular, social, dancing, dancers model one another’s movements and, together, model the muscle tension patterns of particular rhythms and melodic lines; this situation is easily accounted for by what is now known about mirror neurons. Neuroscience thus explains what happens when the music moves you.


Key words: Emotion, movement, music, dance, aesthetics, neuroscience.