I've been thinkin about: The vestibular system and the origin of music...

What could the link possibly be between these two subjects? There is a very primal connection that is both physiological and social: it involves rhythm and synchronization.

Without this primal means of regulating our movements and entering into a visceral connection with others, children do not develop their linguistic and social potential.



Have you ever wondered why children begin to move as soon as they hear music, sometimes even before they can walk? The answer is quite simple: they are developing their vestibular system, without which they cannot function. You will probably notice quite a few blank stares if you attempt to insert the vestibular system into your next cocktail conversation...

The vestibular system is what provides our sense of balance and spatial orientation. It is what allows us to maintain head and body balance and to understand where our body is in space (proprioception). Without a functioning vestibular system, we can't sit up, let alone walk or dance. The two-part system, together with the cochlea, is what constitutes our complex inner ear. The vestibular system insures that our eyes are able to stay focused during the multitude of movements we make everyday: without it, we cannot even nod our heads, let alone stand up without losing our balance because the world would appear to be spinning.

The vestibular system accomplishes this by sending electrical signals to the neural structures that control eye movements and to the muscles that keep us upright. Without a vestibular system in place capable of regulating our eye movements, we cannot not stand up, walk or surprisingly, learn to read.  Like all of our senses, the vestibular system develops through use. This is why children seek movement; they love movement and can never get enough of it. And guess what? Music directly stimulates our vestibular system.

The link between music and the vestibular system is of course the ear. We hear music through our ears, but we feel it with our bodies: music enters the brain through our auditory system and immediately triggers activity in our motor system. There is an actual electrical signal that makes the body move. When children are involved in music making, especially live music, the vibrations actually create a need to move in their bodies. How is it that a fifteen-month old baby can look like a seasoned blues singer, twisting her hips and undulating her arms? The child is simply interpreting what she hears; her movements look like the music sounds. The vestibular system is literally inviting the child to dance!

Even if we understand the mechanics, the spontaneous interpretive dance of infants remains surprising, beautiful and mysterious. This is truly a wonderful win-win phenomenon, because not only is the child developing a vital organ necessary for his survival, he is also having the time of his life. The effect of making music together is inherently pro social and has been shown to develop feelings of belonging and increased empathy. 1)

Research today is focusing heavily on vestibular development and beat perception (the ability to follow a beat) because we are seeing more and more problems that have their roots in our 21st century urban/sedentary lifestyle. I would like to draw a parallel that I find poetic and powerful. We need movement, we thrive on movement and we bond as a species through synchronized movement. These facts are uncontested in the scientific world today. Also uncontested is the fact that children with Dyslexia and ADHD and even children on the autism spectrum have difficulty with beat perception and synchronization. Imagine the breadth of these challenges that share a common root. These children have difficulty with literacy, attention, focus, self-control and even social skills. What do these children have in common? They have a very hard time feeling the beat. Marching to the proverbial "different drummer" actually exists, and it is a sign we need to heed.

Now let's take a quantum leap and look at a theory of the origin of music: the first musical practice most likely involved synchronized movement in groups using the human body as an instrument. I find this compelling: as humans we began our musical voyage simply by moving together, then synchronizing with each other to the sound that our hands and feet were making. The way we developed musically as a species was in fact linked to our ability to perceive rhythm and synchronize with one another.


I think that this is a "writing on the wall" moment: research is pointing its finger at the reasons for a number of deficits. Beat perception or rhythm is vital for a child's physiological and psychological development, yet we have all but eliminated music from our school systems, communities and even homes. I am certain that this will change in the very near future because recent research is serious and compelling. We are seeing clear indications from the French Ministry of Education that they are paying attention to research; I can only hope that other governments will follow.

In the mean time, there is no reason to despair, just pick up your child, turn on the music and dance! It does not matter how you dance or even if you are afraid to sing, you will always be your child's favorite musical partner...