Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

Quick Studies


(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, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?

October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.

October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.

October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.

October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.

October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.

October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.

October 28 • 4:00 AM

The Study of Science Leads to Leftward Leanings

Researchers report the scientific ethos tends to produce a mindset that favors liberal political positions.

October 28 • 2:00 AM

Who Funded That? The Names and Numbers Behind the Research in Our Latest Issue

This list includes studies cited in our pages that received funding from a source other than the researchers’ home institutions. Only principal or corresponding authors are listed.

Follow us

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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