Anecdotal accounts suggest that individuals spontaneously synchronize their movements to the 'beat' of background music, often without intending to, and perhaps even without attending to the music at all. However, the question of whether intention and attention are necessary to synchronize to the beat remains unclear. Here, we compared whether footsteps during overground walking were synchronized to the beat when young healthy adults were explicitly instructed to synchronize (intention to synchronize), and were not instructed to synchronize (no intention) (Experiment 1: intention). We also examined whether reducing participants' attention to the music affected synchronization, again when participants were explicitly instructed to synchronize, and when they were not (Experiment 2: attention/intention). Synchronization was much less frequent when no instructions to synchronize were given. Without explicit instructions to synchronize, there was no evidence of synchronization in 60% of the trials in Experiment 1, and 43% of the trials in Experiment 2. When instructed to synchronize, only 26% of trials in Experiment 1, and 14% of trials in Experiment 2 showed no evidence of synchronization. Because walking to music alters gait, we also examined how gait kinematics changed with or without instructions to synchronize, and attention to the music was required for synchronization to occur. Instructions to synchronize elicited slower, shorter, and more variable strides than walking in silence. Reducing attention to the music did not significantly affect synchronization of footsteps to the beat, but did elicit slower gait. Thus, during walking, intention, but not attention, appears to be necessary to synchronize footsteps to the beat, and synchronization elicits slower, shorter, and more variable strides, at least in young healthy adults.
Keywords: Attention; Dance; Intention; Music; Sensorimotor synchronization.