dog dancing

Image by Matthew Wiebe

Imagine your last concert experience. The anticipation and excitement while you wait in line to get into the concert. The roar of the crowd as the music begins. You can feel the music flow through your body.

If your not a regular concert goer, at this point, you probably try your hardest to stay still and simply listen, but you notice that no matter how hard you try you can't stop your head from bobbing to the beat. It's an awkward feeling trying to resist moving to the beat. Then you notice your concert neighbor to your left letting loose. That's it! It's irresistible. Time to throw your inhibitions to the wind. Time to let the music take over your body. You become one with the crowd, all moving to the same beat in unison. It's pleasurable. What is happening to you psychologically in this moment? It's not magic—it's science. Your body is officially in the groove.

Being in the groove: From your head to your toes

If you are a human and listen to music, you've experienced this compulsion to move with the music. Music can actually refine your motor skills by improving your timing, coordination and rhythm. Let's take a song from the soul genre: Stevie Wonder's - Superstition (Listen Here). As you listen to this song, you should be able to feel your body moving to the beat. Are you actively thinking to yourself, "bob head" or "tap toe"? I don't think so. Rather, it's actually an evolutionary, automatic and irresistible instinct of humans to move your body to the beat of the music.

The ability to perceive and move with a steady beat is unique to animals that vocalize learned communications (i.e., humans). In a study by Janata, Tomic, & Haberman (2015) at the University of California, Davis, researchers looked into the unique psychology behind people's proclivity to move with the music. The term used to explain this phenomenon is called groove, which refers to "rhythmic properties of pieces of music and/or the timing relationships of actions of individuals interacting with the music" or "a kinetic framework for reliable prediction of events and time pattern communication" (Janata et al., 2015, p. 54). In a purely psychological sense, groove is a "sensorimotor phenomenon with an affective component." Feeling and motion. Where does this come from?

The music made me do it

Central to the notion of groove is the idea that moving to the music is both pleasurable and instinctive for your body. While everyone has their own internal biological beat, music itself has its own degree of groove. Some music is high in groove and other music is low in groove. The following words were most frequently used in a person's definition of groove (Janata et al., 2015, p. 58):

  • move
  • beat
  • rhythm
  • dance
  • feel
  • with
  • make
  • your
  • want
  • slow

As you can see, trying to explain feelings and movement produced by music is a difficult task. Essentially, you are trying to explain the unexplainable. But there is one theme that weaves its way through the words the researcher participants used to described groove, the experience is both sensory and motor, meaning you can't get in the groove if you are perfectly still. The movement is essential. Now, think back to the last time you felt in the groove, what do you think about how you experience groove?

The level of groove you perceived in a particular song depends both on the song's fluency and participatory discrepancies. The song's "fluency" relates to your ability to anticipate onsets of specific instruments or beats at specific times and the ease of imagining body movements associated with the music (Janata et al., 2015). A song's "participatory discrepancies" relates to your ability to notice meaningful discrepancies in the timing of the beats (i.e., when the music "drops"). Both of these features are very important to your perception of being in the groove while listening to a particular song. Next time you listen to a song and feel in the groove, listen for the song's fluency and participatory discrepancies.

Moving to the music is psychologically more pleasurable than simply listening. The Janata et al. (2015) researchers found that head bobbing happened as a spontaneous behavior reinforced by the sense of pleasure obtained from a person's perceived connection to the beat of the music. Why is this a big deal? Because it shows that simple head bobbing to music can activate the pleasure centers of your brain, the sames areas activated by some drugs and love. That's powerful.

It's a human bond like no other

All of this leads to one question: why are humans hardwired to get in the groove? The evolutionary purpose of getting in the groove is communication. Isochronous synchronized behaviors are one of the simplest bases of forming social bonds between people. For humans, this instinct exists in you at birth. So don't let anyone convince you that you can't dance, you were born to dance.

I'll leave you with a couple of fun things to try out or imagine. First, think of your dog : has your dog ever moved to a music beat? If your answer is yes, you imagined it because dogs lack the ability. Second, think of a baby : have you ever seen a baby move to the beat of the music? If you're not sure, then turn on some music with a simple predictable beat and bob your head to the beat while smiling and looking at your baby (or try this with a friend and their baby). I'll bet you if the baby is relaxed and comfortable, he or she will bob his or her head back at you. It's part of the human condition and it's all about communication. That's why you love it.

get in the groove

Image by Matthew Wiebe.

Put simpler

If you are like me and feel silly dancing, it's because we're afraid our communication will be rejected. But it is really your fear of rejection that is getting in the way of your ability to get in the groove. The groove is there, it's inside of you, it's been there since your birth, and all you need to do is let the music take control of your body to obtain it. Once you do, once you stop being scared, once you stop thinking, and once you let your natural, instinctive groove center do the work for you, you will feel more connected to people than ever before. It's pure pleasure. If you are ever at a concert and afraid to dance to the music, remember this:

Are people hardwired to move to the music? Yes, we're born with dance skills. No more excuses—hit the dance floor.Tweet: Are people hardwired to move to the music? Yes, the evolutionary purpose is communication. No more excuses-time to dance.Share this

-Clay for SndControl-

See Janata, P., Tomic, S.T. & Haberman, J.M. (2012). Sensorimotor coupling in music and the psychology of the groove.Journal of Experimental Psychology, 141(1), 54-75.

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