Kathak, a classical Indian dance

Rhythm is a dancer

Music is commonly accompanied by dance – indeed, the two may have evolved together

Music and dance often go hand in hand, and it seems likely that their origins are closely entwined. The brain’s locomotion systems and auditory systems clearly interact. When we hear a sudden noise, we may blink or jump without intending to (the acoustic startle response), which involves pathways running directly from the ear to the spinal systems controlling movement. Of relevance to music, babies listening to six-beat rhythms can perceive it as a march (three pairs of beats) or a waltz (two sets of three) depending on how they are bounced on someone’s knee.

Dance is often associated with rituals, and plays an important social role. An attractive theory is that dance, like music, evolved to strengthen social groups. Music and dance would have provided a mechanism to reinforce group identity – and to impress potential enemies.

Later, music and dance were appropriated by ruling elites to reinforce social structures and promote conformism. Religious movements in particular have used music and dance as a form of group identity – from the hymns of Christianity, the gospel music of Southern Baptists to the Islamic adhan (call to prayer). Music has a special place in Tibetan Buddhism: monks use music to recite sacred texts and at various festivals.

Dance has fared less well, suffering from its association with pagan rituals and entertainment. Even so, it remains at the heart of many religions, including strands of Christianity and Islam. In Hinduism, the entire universe is thought to have been conjured up through the dance of the Supreme Dancer, Nataraja. A version of ritualistic dance survives today in the form of South Indian classical dance.

Lead image:

Kathak, a classical Indian dance.

Matsukin/Flickr CC BY

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Neuroscience, Physiology
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development