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.