A Violinist Researches How We Move to the Music

Gary Shapiro
February 10, 2014

When Mariusz Kozak was a professional violinist playing with orchestras and chamber ensembles, he noticed how music altered the awareness of time for himself, his fellow musicians and even the audience. Several years later, as he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago, he decided to look more closely into that phenomenon. “I began examining what time and music seem to have in common—movement,” he said.

Kozak, who joined Columbia’s Department of Music last July, is now taking that research interest a step further, studying the connection between how people listen and move to music. “Every known culture has some sort of combination of dance and music.” Whether you’re tapping your feet to jazz, nodding along to classical music or playing air guitar to rock ’n’ roll, it is all material for his research. “The study of motion and music is an emerging area,” said Kozak, who notes that interest in the subject has risen over the past decade or so as the technology for recording the movement of objects and people—motion capture—has improved.

Kozak’s work is part of a larger field of study called “embodied cognition,” which views the mind not as confined to the brain but as an extension of the body and its environment. It cuts across disciplines that include cognitive science, robotics, psychology and philosophy.

To be sure, this is hardly the first time when the human body was an element of scholarship on music. In the 11th century, the Benedictine monk Guido d’Arezzo, who helped invent the system of musical notation, also developed a way for singers to memorize melodies by having certain notes correspond to parts of the human hand.

Today, Kozak’s work takes him to darkened rooms with infrared cameras, where test subjects are outfitted with a skin-tight, black, two-piece suit with silver-painted markers attached. As music plays, their every move is recorded. In one video, a colleague of Kozak, Norwegian singer and composer Mari Romarheim Haugen, wears the suit as she illustrates the basic steps of the samba. In his work, Kozak also researches different kinds of movements to come up with general models of how different participants move to the music they hear.

Kozak has investigated what happens when people are asked to pretend that the motion of their arms can produce music. It turns out, Kozak said, that even though listeners employ strikingly different words when talking about the same piece of music, they tend to make similar gestures with their hands. That’s because body language tends to be more uniform than speech, and certain sounds evoke quite specific movements. “We have a good sense, for example, of how people imitate guitar playing,” he said.

Take Led Zeppelin’s rock anthem Stairway to Heaven. Whether it is performed by guitar, piano or accordion, listeners respond to the same pitches, harmonies and rhythms. “While no two people move alike,” he said, “there are nevertheless very broad categories of motion types that have similarities between them.” When sounds are loud, people tend to respond with big movements; soft sounds elicit small, even timid ones.

“Sounds that are explosive, like a bass drum or a guitar power-chord, would elicit very energetic, vigorous, sometimes even aggressive movements,” he said. “The individual details of these movements would be different—for example, some would be done with hands, others with entire bodies, still others only with heads—but the overall characteristics like relative size and energy would be similar.”

Kozak’s work has implications for music therapy, which is frequently used with patients who have suffered neurological damage due to a stroke or Parkinson’s disease. He said that synchronizing movement with sound often allows patients to regain the ability to move. “Essentially the brain rewires itself to bypass those areas that have been damaged,” Kozak said.

The Polish-born Kozak earned his Ph.D. in music theory and history at the University of Chicago and was a postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University. In 2010-2011, he was part of an international group based at the University of Oslo, led by musicologist Rolf Inge Godoy and funded in part by the U.S.–Norway Fulbright Foundation and the Norwegian Research Council.

Not surprisingly, Kozak’s interest in music began in his childhood. He has played classical violin since he was 7, performed with the Rochester Philharmonic and the Santa Fe Opera, and played in a country band. He has seen his own music make audiences dance, but hasn’t studied those responses. “Naturally, I wasn’t doing my research. I was more interested in having a good time.”