Playing music together: coordinated actions, attuned brains


The ability to coordinate our actions with someone else in real time is necessary for playing music together, dancing with others, playing sports, and a host of day-to-day social interactions.  But how do our brains mediate this social coordination?  Sänger et al (2012) begin to address this question by studying brain activity coordination in pairs of guitarists playing a duet.

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Playing musical instruments together well requires an ongoing listening and awareness of ourselves and each other, a close attunement and flexible responsiveness to each other, and a coordination of actions between people, which has been termed “interpersonal action coordination” Sänger et al (2011).  This kind of attunement and coordination is also necessary when people dance or play certain types of sports together, or engage in many other types of less formalized social interactions that require coordinated action and are important in daily life, e.g. having a conversation or carrying out a task with someone (Sänger et al 2011; Sebanz et al 2006).  How is this mental and emotional attunement and motor coordination between two people mediated by the coordinated functioning of their brains?

A recent study by Sänger et al (2012) addressed this question by measuring electrical brain activity in pairs of people playing guitar duets, and by looking for similarities in electrical activity between the two brains during the playing.  The study included 12 sets of two skilled guitarists playing together a Rondo by Christian Gottlieb Scheidler, which involves changes in tempo.  The participants played the music from memory while facing each other.  They played the piece together 60 times on one test day, and another 60 times on a second test day.  The electrical activity of each player’s brain was recorded during the testing using electroencephalography (EEG).  To maximize the possibility that similarities in brain electrical activity of the two players would be related to interpersonal action coordination, and not just to identical perception (e.g. hearing) or identical movements (guitar playing movement), the study was designed so that the two players played somewhat different parts of the music, though the authors acknowledge that the perceptions and motions of the players were still quite similar.  The study found that coherence in activity between the two brains was most pronounced at the times that put a high demand on coordination of playing, e.g. at the time of tempo setting, and that this activity coherence was found especially at the front and center of the two brains. Between-brain coherence was seen especially in slow rhythm brain waves called theta waves.

The authors infer that frontal and central areas of the brain are particularly important for interpersonal action coordination.  They argue that these data support their model that this type of real-time coordination of action requires brain representation of one’s own actions and the actions of one’s partners and the effects of those actions (Sänger et al 2011).  They point out that brain research on interpersonal action coordination is only beginning, and much more research is needed to clarify the particular brain circuits involved, because the methods used in this study do not localize the source of the brain activity very precisely.  In addition, to studying how between-brain coherence works in those skilled it coordinating their actions, it will also be important and clinically relevant to study what is different about the brain functioning of individuals who have more difficulty with activities that demand coordination of action with another individual.


Sänger J, Lindenberger U, Müller V (2011) Interactive brains, social minds.  Communicative and Integrative Biology 4(6):655-663.

Sänger J, Müller V, Lindenberger U (2012) Intra- and interbrain synchronization and network properties when playing guitar in duets.  Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6:312.

Sebanz N, Bekkering H, Knoblich G (2006) Joint action:  bodies and minds moving together.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10(2):70-76.

©2011-2013 Edward S. Brodkin.  All Rights Reserved


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