Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Quick Studies

dance

(Photo: CREATISTA/Shutterstock)

What Kind of Beat Makes You Want to Groove?

• April 16, 2014 • 2:39 PM

(Photo: CREATISTA/Shutterstock)

The science behind the rhythms that get you on the dance floor.

Sometimes, you just have to dance.

You know this feeling, right? Your moves may look like Elaine Benes’, but you hear the right Beyoncé track in a bar and you’re suddenly drawn to the middle of the club floor. Or Daft Punk plays on the radio and there’s nothing you can do to stop yourself from doing the robot in your car. There’s no thought behind it; the beat hits and you just need to move.

So what is it about certain dance-y songs that drive our hips crazy? According to a new study, the key is a balanced rhythm. Maria Witek led a group of researchers at the Universities of Oxford and Aarhus in assessing the beat preferences of a small sample of people around the world and found that the most danceable songs hit just the right rhythmic sweet spot between simplicity and complexity.*

“Entrainment [the desire to synchronize] feels good when there is some structural resistance against the regular pulse in the musical material.”

Participants in the study took an online survey that featured 50 short synthesized drum lines, which varied in degrees of syncopation. They rated each rhythm by two measures: how much pleasure it gave them and how much it made them want to boogie. (The study refers to these as “groove-related experiences.”)

The results revealed that beat preference, when graphed, looks like an upside-down U on the scale of rhythmic intricacy. Overly simplistic beats are boring, it seems; overly complicated ones are befuddling. A mix of both, however, makes a sound that’s just off-kilter enough to be exciting.

“Entrainment [the desire to synchronize] feels good when there is some structural resistance against the regular pulse in the musical material,” writes Witek, whose study was published today in PLoS One.

While the cognitive side of our impulse to bust a move remains to be explored, Witek speculates medium-complexity rhythms are effective because they tug on our desire for coordination. “Syncopation in music associated with groove could be seen as an invitation to the body to synchronise with the metre, the desire to move may be a response to this invitation and the pleasure a result of the fulfilled desire,” she writes.

Of course, the precise optimal level of rhythmic complexity differs for each person, Witek notes. That’s why different people love to dance to different songs. According to the survey, preferences varied a bit based on participants’ musical backgrounds—musical training they’ve had, how much they listened to “groove-based” music, and whether or not they even liked dancing. General factors like a listener’s personality and cultural background should shape his or her taste for rhythm as well, Witek adds.

But these variables simply add to the curve, not alter it. And while it’s not too surprising we like beats somewhere in the middle of the complexity scale, these results make a strong case for rhythm’s power to affect us, which research often overlooks in favor of melody and harmony, according to the study.

Now go drop some science next time you hit the dance floor.


*UPDATE — April 17, 2014: We originally wrote that Maria Witek is a music professor at Oxford. She is affiliated with the university, but is a postdoc at the University of Aarhus.

Paul Bisceglio
Editorial Fellow Paul Bisceglio was previously an editorial intern at Smithsonian magazine and a staff reporter at Manhattan Media. He is a graduate of Haverford College and completed a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom. Follow him on Twitter @PaulBisceglio.

More From Paul Bisceglio

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.