Rhythm key to wanting to dance
Rhythm is key in desire to dance
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Get on up: What the Godfather of Soul knew about rhythm

What is it about the rhythms of some music that makes us want to get up and dance? Oxford University researchers believe they may have found part of the answer in a new study.

They say that an ideal balance of rhythmic predictability and complexity explains why James Brown will get most people up and grooving, while many of us struggle to tap our feet along with experimental jazz.

The researchers from Oxford University and the University of Aarhus in Denmark were interested in understanding how the structure of the music affects our desire to dance. They set up an online survey to investigate the role of rhythm in generating pleasure and body movement.

'Many people find themselves unable to resist moving their bodies to the beat of hip-hop, electronic, or funk music, but may feel less desire to dance when listening to a highly syncopated type of music, like free jazz,' says Dr Maria Witek, who carried out the study as part of her DPhil studies at Oxford University, along with neuroscientist Professor Morten Kringelbach and Professor of Music Eric Clarke. She is now at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Their study in the journal PLOS ONE found that a balance of predictability and complexity in the rhythm of the music made people want to dance most.

Dr Witek explains using examples from nursery rhymes to one of the last albums recorded by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.

While Twinkle Twinkle Little Star has little complexity in rhythm, James Brown’s Funky Drummer has a medium amount and Coltrane’s Interstellar Space has a great deal of rhythmic complexity.

Dr Witek says: 'Out of these three, James Brown is the one that will get people on the dance floor. Twinkle Twinkle is too rhythmically predictable, while the Coltrane is not predictable at all. James Brown is a perfect balance between predictability and complexity.'

Over 60 participants from all over the world, aged between 17 and 63, took part in the web-based survey. They listened to funk drum-breaks with varying degrees of rhythmic complexity and syncopation, and then rated the extent to which the beats made them want to move, as well as how much pleasure they experienced.

The results showed that the highest ratings were for drum breaks with not too much, not too little complexity in rhythm.

Pleasure is viewed in psychology as a powerful reward which motivates behaviour. Some psychological rewards, such as food and sex, have clear biological significance since they motivate reproduction and survival. Music has a less clear biological advantage, but the social benefits of music are well known. Previous research has shown that synchronising body-movements in making and moving to music increases social bonding and cooperation.

Dr Witek and colleagues say their research suggests that rhythmic complexity is an important factor in the relationship between musical structure, desire to dance and pleasure.

'Our findings help us understand how certain musical rhythms can stimulate desire for spontaneous body-movement,' says Dr Witek. 'Of course, there are many other aspects that contribute to people's desire to move, both in the actual music and in the context around it. We would like to expand our research to address these other aspects too.'

The study was funded by TrygFonden Charitable Foundation, Denmark. Maria Witek held a Clarendon Fund-Wadham College, Oxford scholarship during the study.