Wanna Get Your Groove On? Offbeat Rhythms Might Get You Dancing

By Rhonda J. Miller on April 20, 2014 3:21 PM EDT

Getting In The Groove
The unpredictable rhythm of syncopation, with a backbeat or an offbeat, is the essence of what makes people want to move in sync with the music, a new study found. (Photo: Courtesy of Shutterstock / Rhonda J. Miller)

It's the backbeat, the offbeat, the unexpected changes in rhythm that push people off their chairs and onto the dance floor, even though they're not really aware of why they want to move to the music.

The urge to groove appears to be based on syncopation, scientists found in a new study that revealed the rhythms often found in funk, hip-hop and electronic dance music set off the impulse to make people feel good and want to move their bodies in sync with the music, Health Day reported.

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What exactly is syncopation?

"It's is a musical structure that violates rhythmic expectations," said the study's lead author Maria Witek, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience at Aarhus University in Denmark.

"Another way of describing syncopation is 'offbeat rhythm,' because the tones occur between the main beats, and not on them," said Witeck. "Syncopations are examples of rhythmic complexity, because they disrupt the regularity of rhythm and create perceptual tension."

The small study of 66 people was done with through an Internet survey that asked participants to listen to 50 brief drum solos and answer questions about how much they liked the sounds and how much the rhythm made them want to move. The results of the study were published in the April issue of the journal PLoS ONE.

The study arose from the simple premise that dancing is a universal element of society.

"Moving to music is an essential human pleasure particularly related to musical groove," the authors said in the abstract of the study in PLoS ONE. "Structural complexity has been related to positive effect in music more broadly, but the function of syncopation in eliciting pleasure and body movement in the groove is unknown."

The essence of wanting to move is created by "a balance between predictability and complexity," said Witek. Examples of groove music includes the song "Sex Machine" by James Brown and "Happy," from the "Despicable Me 2" soundtrack, by Pharrell Williams.

Particularly favored to get people into the groove are "classic R&B, Motown, and funk, which are highly rated by listeners for grooviness, with Stevie Wonder's music rating especially high," said Justin London, a professor of music at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. Each generation may have felt the particular groove of its own music, such as the big band sound of Duke Ellington, he said.

Syncopation and its instinctive groove can cover many genres of music and has been around for a long time, according to the website of Phil Seyer, a composer, dance teacher, and music educator who is author of What Makes Music Work, a self-teaching guide to music theory for adults. The renowned composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein used to be fond of pointing out that you can make traditional music have a jazz flavor by adding syncopations, said Seyer.

"Beethoven used syncopations in his music more than 100 years earlier than the early American jazz musicians," Seyer said on his website. "And you can find a good example of syncopation in the A minor Two Part Invention by J.S. Bach.

"Syncopation is used in many musical styles and is fundamental in styles such as ragtime, jazz, jump blues, funk, reggae, rap, progressive electronic dance music, progressive rock, progressive metal, breakbeat, drum 'n' bass, samba, baioa, ska and dubstep," according to an informal website on syncopation related to Berklee College of Music in Boston.

"All dance music makes use of syncopation and it's often the vital element that ties the whole track together," according to the website. "In the form of a backbeat, syncopation is used in virtually all contemporary popular music."

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock)

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