Here's why these songs make us want to dance, according to science

The desire to dance is greatest when the song meets these criteria.

It's impossible not to groove to a hit from the 1980s, the pop sound of Michael Jackson or BeyoncĂ©'s latest hit? This is completely normal because certain music makes us dance more than others, French researchers from Insermo and the University of Aix-Marseille prove. In their study published in the journal Science Advance in March 2024, they were interested in the mechanisms involved in the spontaneous desire to dance, also called “groove”. To do this, they studied the brain activity of 30 people who listened to music using a magnetoencephalography device. The participants had to listen to 12 short melodies composed of a rhythm of 120 beats per minute, or 2 Hz, the average rhythm that can be found in music in general. Each of the melodies has been modified to produce music with increasingly complex rhythms. At the end of each session, instructions were to record the slot level.

Funk and jazz always work

The desire to move with the music was maximal for a rhythm that represented a medium syncopation rate, meaning it was neither too simple nor too complex. “Syncopation corresponds to a rhythm in which a note (or even a chord) is attacked on a weaker beat and extended to the next strong beat. Concretely, for the listener, this creates a shift in the expected emphasis, perceived as a kind of musical “hiccup” that disrupts the regularity of the rhythm. These are musical motifs especially present in funk music or jazz”, describe the authors. Syncopations are also widely used in reggae, ska, blues, hip-hop and contemporary pop. Analysis of the participants' brains then allowed the researchers to highlight the role of the left sensorimotor cortex, involved in movement coordination. This part of the brain is activated by the sound of certain music and generates voluntary muscle movements.

Roughly speaking, for music to make us dance:

  • Its pace should be neither too fast nor too slow.
  • Its rhythm must be simple enough that the listener wants to beat time without getting discouraged…
  • …but unpredictable enough that the listener doesn't get bored (use of syncopation, offbeats, unexpected accents, drum riffs, cross-rhythms…), which makes the music more attractive.

Popular music that meets these criteria is for example: “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder, “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” or “Funky Drummer” by James Brown, “Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry, “Plastic Bag” by Drake , “Benny and The Jets” by Elton John, “Girl from Ipanema” by Antonio Carlos Jobim, “An Englishman in New York” by Sting, “The Anthem of Our Countryside” by Tryo… Listen to them and see for yourself!

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