The Role of Culture in Entrainment to Music from the Perspective of Embodied Cognition


  • Omar Hafez University of Vienna


Entrainment is the process by which an independent agent synchronizes or coordinates its frequency or motion to that of another. Entrainment is an abstraction that describes processes that occur in different phenomena [1]. What my study is concerned with is the human ability to “lock-on” or synchronize with an external rhythm, or a beat, in music. In particular, I aim to investigate what light the perspective of embodiment has shed on musical entrainment.

Music is a universal human trait. A great number of music cultures exist around the world and studies show that beat detection is innate in human beings [2]. At the same time, there is a great deal of rhythmic variety and knowledge of musical structures that we learn in the culture we are embedded in [3]. This could be the reason why someone with no musical experience or exposure to the music culture of the Balkan, or Turkey, for example, would experience difficulty synchronizing their movement, in the form of dancing or even tapping, to the Aksak rhythm (an irregular rhythm that alternates between two and three eighth notes, giving it a sense of unevenness or a “limping” effect). In other words, these unfamiliar rhythms would not be fit to elicit an entrainment response for that person.

Our interaction with music involves the body, mind, and environment – whether that is the environment in which we are engaging with music or the environment we are immersed in while growing up. The emphasis that embodied cognition places on the role of the body and the environment in perception makes it a promising perspective for exploring entrainment. The intention of this study is to understand: what contributions could the field of embodied cognition make to explain the cultural component of entrainment?

I approach this research question by doing a concise review of the literature and identifying the current state of knowledge on the matter of musical entrainment. Next, I analyze the literature and explore to which extent it incorporates or has space for cultural components.

The aim of the study is to shed light on the matter of entrainment to music in cross-cultural contexts specifically from the embodied perspective. By connecting research concerns of cognitive science and embodiment with research on music in different disciplines, including ethnomusicology, musicology, and psychology, I hope to expand my knowledge of the perspectives offered by embodied cognition on the phenomenon of entrainment.


[1] M. Clayton, “What is Entrainment? Definition and applications in musical research,” Empirical Musicology Review, vol. 7, no. 1–2, pp. 49–56, 2012, doi: 10.18061/1811/52979.

[2] I. Winkler, G. P. Háden, O. Ladinig, I. Sziller, and H. Honing, “Newborn infants detect the beat in music,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A., vol. 106, no. 7, pp. 2468–2471, Feb. 2009, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0809035106.

[3] E. E. Hannon and L. J. Trainor, “Music acquisition: effects of enculturation and formal training on development,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 11, no. 11, pp. 466–472, Nov. 2007, doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2007.08.008.