‘Entrainment’ is the coordination or synchronisation of different rhythms. ‘Interpersonal entrainment’ is timing coordination between two or more individuals. ‘Interpersonal musical entrainment’ is what happens when people get together for activities involving music (concerts, dances, religious rituals, even sporting events…), and synchronise what they are doing. For more background, watch our short film…

Human beings seem to have a unique capacity to use sound and movement to coordinate the actions of groups of individuals. If you can make a rhythmic sound – as simple as hitting a hollow log with a stick – and you can listen to other individuals doing something similar, then this ‘interpersonal entrainment’ is likely to happen automatically. All you need to do is listen: watching the others also helps, as does feeling their movement (for example, if you hold hands with a dance partner). In fact, it can be difficult to avoid this coordination!

In real life, of course, music and dance are usually much more complex than people tapping out simple beats in time with each other. Rhythms can be complicated, different individuals can play at different speeds, and these rhythms can fit together in an infinite variety of ways. We can synchronise very precisely, especially if we work at it, but sometimes we seem to prefer being loosely coordinated with others. All of these things vary hugely both within and between cultures, while we can see common features between musical styles that are historically related (for example, between different African-American styles).

Hear more about music and entrainment on the BBC ‘History of Rhythm’ documentary, presented by Evelyn Glennie and featuring Martin Clayton

Musical entrainment research aims to make sense of this complex reality. What capacities allow us to entrain, and do we all possess these abilities to the same degree? How does interpersonal musical entrainment vary between cultures? How is it related to the different ways societies are organised, or to the way people think about teamwork and individuality? What role does entrainment play in giving people a sense of belonging (or not) to particular social groups? What role does it play in helping people go into trance or other altered states of consciousness? These are some of the questions that interest us at Durham’s Music and Science Lab.

Read more here: Martin Clayton, ‘What is entrainment?’ (Empirical Musicology Review, 2012)