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How musical rhythm moves humans: functional mechanisms of entrainment and perception-action coupling

Project description

Understanding the brain processes behind perception and body movement to musical rhythm

Humans show a remarkable ability to perceive and produce musical rhythm, but the brain mechanisms behind this behavior remain unknown. An outstanding hypothesis is that the activity of auditory and motor brain regions is tightly coupled. This coupling would explain that we are spontaneously entrained to move to musical rhythm, and in turn that body movement can change the way we hear a rhythm. The ERC-funded Rhythm and Brains project aims to uncover these brain mechanisms by combining concepts and methods of experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Results will shed light on the brain mechanisms ruling human perception and movement, and aim to inform clinical practices using rhythm to probe and improve the function of sensory-motor networks after brain damage.


Entrainment to music is a culturally widespread activity with increasingly recognized pro-social and
therapeutic effects. Music powerfully compels us to move to the musical rhythm, showcasing the
remarkable ability of humans to perceive and produce rhythmic inputs. However, the underlying
functional mechanisms remain unknown. One view, which dates back to Darwin, is that the relevant
mechanisms are ancient and anchored in the evolutionary oldest subcortical parts of the brain.
However, recent research argues that rhythm perception is a complex cognitive function involving
temporally precise communication between cortical sensory and motor regions, even in the absence
of overt body movement or intention to move.
This project aims to uncover these mechanisms by combining concepts and methods of
experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Specifically, the research will (i) unravel the
mechanisms at the interface of rhythmic inputs, motor skills and brain activity, (ii) establish the
active role of motor representations in rhythm perception, (iii) track the development of these
processes even prior to language in infants, and (iv) investigate the physiopathology and restoration
of these processes in brain-damaged patients.
To achieve these objectives, the project will use a comparable method across different experimental
settings, the frequency-tagging approach, whose reliability and advantages have been recently
established as an innovative method to capture neural entrainment to rhythm in humans. Results
will provide important knowledge into how psychological, environmental and neural mechanisms
affect such entrainment. Clarifying these mechanisms provides an optimal framework to unravel the
role of an intrinsic sensory-motor coupling underlying perception and how this coupling develops
over the lifespan. It is also critical for optimising clinical rehabilitation practices using music as a
powerful non-verbal cross-cultural means of communication.

Host institution

Net EU contribution
€ 1 494 900,00
1348 Louvain La Neuve

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Région wallonne Prov. Brabant Wallon Arr. Nivelles
Activity type
Higher or Secondary Education Establishments
Total cost
€ 1 494 900,00

Beneficiaries (1)