Rhythm in language and music

The rhythmic coupling in Body Moves seems to be akin to music performance. In a choir, for example, singers and musicians are ‘collectively engaged in the synchronous production and perception of complex patterns of sound and music’ (Cross 2006; Arom 1991; Blacking 1973). In collective musical behaviour, performers are likely to be coordinated with time and be more or less predictable in relation to each other. This collective activity has a high degree of coherence which is likely to help establish a strong sense of group identity (Stobart and Cross 2000; Cross 2006).

Researchers such as Kendon (1972, 1983) have noted the centrality of rhythm or flow in gesture and prosody that allows people to attune to each other, interpret significances, and make manifest their intentions as part of the context rather than the substance of the information interchange. Such features of gesture and sound in communicative interaction have been explored as manifestations of a human capacity to entrain, that is, to align the timings of acts, sound, and attention in communicative contexts around a regular but implicit periodic time interval. Entrainment may be evident momentarily, as in the alignment of the timing of gesture and body movement that has been observed as co-occurring with topical agreement in discourse (e.g. Kendon 1972, 1990; Gill et al. 2000), or it may take more sustained forms, being manifested over longer stretches of discursive interaction (e.g. syllables, Wilson and Wilson 2005; body sway, Shockley et al. 2003; eye gaze, Richardson and Dale 2005).

In the field of music psychology, Cross’s works on music and sociality (Cross and Woodruff 2009; Cross 2006), music and evolution (Cross 2006), and music perception propose that music is fundamentally social and bodily and that the relation between music and movement in time is evolutionary and cognitive. This relation shapes our capacity to both perceive and anticipate when an event, be this a gesture or vocalization, is going to occur, and to mutually respond to it in coordinated time. Cross has developed the concept of ‘floating intentionality’, which brings together the idea of shared intentionality from pragmatics in language (Sperber and Wilson 1986) and intentionality from a musical context that is intrinsic to both these domains. He makes the distinction that language is primarily transactional and music relational (Cross 2011). Rhythm operates at the relational level in both language and music.

Linguistic models focus primarily on turn-taking structures that can be considered outside the dynamics of experiencing in time. Recently, Levinson (2011), director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, has begun to build a bridge between music and language that considers the temporal dynamics of the turn-taking structure as possibly facilitating the rhythmicity in speech. Furthermore work in phonetics by Local (2003, 2007) shows how qualities in vocal sounds of participants are taken up by each other, whereby pitch, tempo, melody, function to bind turn-taking dynamics. There are new possibilities emerging for exploring the relation between rhythm in music and language.

The author’s research extends from and builds upon the work on Body Moves to ask the wider question about the role that rhythm plays in facilitating communication and tacit knowing. The research now draws on music psychology, particularly the research of the Centre for Music and Science (CMS), University of Cambridge. The work also draws on the emerging research in psycholinguistics and phonetics. The aim is to deepen the investigation of rhythm in sense-making. Further analysis of the relation between levels of rhythm and synchrony, and identifying the differences between being able to see the other person or being unable to see them, is currently being undertaken in a project on the pragmatics of rhythm in language and music with Tommi Himberg, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland. Himberg has researched entrainment as mutual adaptation in human interaction (Himberg 2011) and analysed synchronization of movement in cross-cultural interaction (Himberg and Thompson 2010). The project compares music and language improvisation tasks to understand the qualities of rhythm and why the pragmatic patterns emerge when they do. The author is also conducting research on entrainment and rhythm in phatic interaction within the human greeting, in collaboration with Guy Hayward at the Centre for Music and Science [CMS]. Another project called Touching Sound aims to design a computer-based musical instrument for therapy that can facilitate synchrony and entrainment in human interaction whilst also giving aesthetic pleasure. This is a collaboration with Hoadley (musician and designer of the instrument) and Odell-Miller (music therapist) at Anglia Ruskin University, Himberg, Kempske (sculpture artist specializing on touch), Cambridge, Magee (music therapist specializing in neural disorders and motor rehabilitation), and the Centre for Music and Science.