Beethoven and Brahms move audience members to synchronization symphony

Music sets hearts beating in lockstep, researchers find

Researchers in Germany have found that classical music audience members synchronize their heart rate and breathing during the performance.

Electrical conductivity of skin, which can suggest a the level of excitement, was also among the biological signs the scientists found were coordinated during the string quintet's rendition of works by Beethoven, Brahms, and 20th century Australian composer Brett Dean.

A study led by Wolfgang Tschacher, professor of quantitative psychotherapy at Switzerland's University of Bern, recruited audience members before the concert at the Radialsystem venue in Berlin.

The participants agreed to wear sensors to monitor their heartbeat, breathing rate, and skin conductivity, while overhead cameras detailed their movements.

Scientists have observed synchronization in the autonomic nervous system – which is regulated involuntarily without conscious awareness – as the coordination of two unrelated processes at a statistically significant level. In people it usually happens during social interaction with another individual, but an association with music has also been proposed. In Tschacher's study, participants filled in questionnaires designed to assess their mood and their own perception of their personality before the performance.

The study found synchronization between audience members for movement, heart rate, breathing, and the electrical conductivity of skin, although the greatest level was seen in the breathing rate. Measures of personality were also a factor. Those who said they had agreeable or openness traits were more likely to become synchronized, while more nervous, insecure people and those with certain extrovert traits were less likely to do so.

The study was prompted by interest in the way human minds are "embodied" in cognitive processes. Unlike the computer models currently obsessing the tech industry, human minds exist within sensing, feeling, and living organisms that took hundreds of millions of years to evolve.

In a paper published in Nature Scientific Reports this week, Tschacher said: "Clear evidence was found of physiological synchrony (heart rate, respiration rate, skin conductance response) as well as movement synchrony of the audiences, whereas breathing behavior was not synchronized. Thus the audiences of the three concerts resonated with the music, their music perception was embodied. There were links between the bodily synchrony and aesthetic experiences: synchrony, especially heart-rate synchrony, was higher when listeners felt moved emotionally and inspired by a piece, and were immersed in the music." ®

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