Medical Mysteries of Music

Why do some songs make people want to dance? Let’s ask science!

There are just some songs that encourage you to move to the beat. You might even start twitching unconsciously before eventually busting out some big moves. But what is it about certain songs that cause this physiological reaction?

Neuroscientists have been studying this connection between music and movement for years, an impulse some call the “groove experience.” Up until now, scientists have studied music and dance as separate things when it comes to the brain. A new study out of France has shed some light on things by looking at both music and dance together.

Researchers at the University of Montpellier have found that several factors are at play including syncopation and melody. I quote from Scientific American:

In a series of experiments with more than 60 participants, cognitive neuroscientist Benjamin Morillon and his team from Aix-Marseille University in France uncovered how syncopation relates to the groove experience. In one study, they played 12 different melodies. The main beat was always two hertz, or roughly two events per second. But the melody’s rhythmic shifts varied so that each tune was played with three different degrees of syncopation. Participants then rated how much they wanted to dance to each track.

As Morillon and his colleagues reported in the journal Science Advances, a medium degree of syncopation triggered the strongest desire to move to the music. By contrast, neither a very high nor low degree of syncopation had that same result. In other words, people didn’t particularly want to dance to an absolutely predictable rhythm or a highly surprising one.


To better understand how the brain derives these movements from the melody, Morillon and his colleagues measured brain activity in 29 people using magnetoencephalography as these participants listened to music. This analysis showed that the brain’s auditory cortex—the region that first processes auditory stimuli—primarily follows the melody’s rhythm. Meanwhile the dorsal auditory pathway, the brain area that connects the auditory cortex with movement areas, is where the rhythm apparently matches to the basic beat. It’s therefore likely that the impulse to dance arises in this pathway and is then passed on to the motor areas as a movement impulse.

So the brain automatically connects beat with the bits that government movement. It doesn’t necessiarily lead to graceful movement, but still…

There’s more here, too. (Thanks to Peter for the link.)

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38550 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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