Cool Facts About Performing Arts: Entrainment

Have you ever heard that clocks ticking at different beats will eventually synch up to tick in time? Well, it’s true.

Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch physicist who first identified this process using pendulum clocks, called this curiosity ‘the sympathy of the clocks,’ although what he actually identified was the phenomenon of entrainment, an exceptionally cool rhythmic synchronization that also happens to humans and animals: fireflies lock into a same beat, humans adjust their rhythmic speech patterns to each other in conversation and our brain waves, when entrained with certain frequencies, create in us states of deep peace and tranquility.

So, if you’ve ever wondered just what “it” was that made that concert feel like one giant, shared experience, why we’re so euphoric when we leave … well, we were entraining with the rhythm, and, by definition, with each other. In a bio-musical sense, we literally became the same rhythm. For a brief amount of time, a thousand humans in Ferguson Hall can synch into one giant, molecular pulsing phenomenon—one thousand clocks ticking in time. Entrainment makes us feel good, it can propel us to trance states, it explains why our ancient ancestors used drums to connect to the Great Spirit, to amp up for war, to celebrate life and death.

When researchers began to describe the phenomenon of entrainment, they assumed that “beat induction,” a component of entrainment that makes it possible to synch up to the beat in different tempos, was a unique human ability. Of course, it’s not. It turns out this sulphur-crested cockatoo, named Snowball, knows perfectly well how to entrain to a beat, and we’d be willing to bet he’s not the only one.

Entrainment reminds us that the performing arts—music, dance—were never created purely for entertainment purposes. They are as vital to human life as our other biological processes. Think about it: what is rhythm, anyway, except the replication of a beating heart?

Many thanks to ethnomusicologists Martin Clayton, Rebecca Sager and Udo Will, whose 2004 article, “In time with the music: The concept of entrainment and its significance for ethnomusicology,” was indispensable in informing this blog. Here’s the whole article, for your reading pleasure:

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