Does music make you move? Here’s why our brains love to groove.

We enjoy music not only through our ears, but also through the rest of our body.

When the music sounds just right, we tap our feet, snap our fingers and start moving. It’s an almost irresistible impulse.

This pleasurable urge to move to music is what scientists call groove. Researchers have reported that even 3-month-old babies spontaneously move to music when listening to Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody.”

“We think it’s almost universal,” said Takahide Etani, a medical resident at the Japan Red Cross Ashikaga Hospital who coauthored a 2024 review of neuroscience and psychology research on groove. Etani said many other countries have words that capture a similar idea, such as “nori” in Japanese, “balanço” in Brazilian Portuguese and “svängig” in Swedish.

Psychological and neuroscience research shows that the phenomenon of groove reveals something fundamental about how our brains work: We enjoy trying to predict how the music will go, and we move to make that prediction.

When the musical rhythm is not completely predictable, it invites us to move and ‘fill in the beat’. said Maria Witek, a senior lecturer in music at Britain’s University of Birmingham who researches music cognition. “The music requires us to move in order to be whole, in a sense.”

The power of groove is that it “makes music a distributed process in which we actively participate and blurs the lines between music and mind and body,” she said.

Groove-y music is just unpredictable enough

The term “groove” has historically been associated with music of the African American and Cuban diasporas, according to Tomas Matthews, a postdoctoral researcher in clinical medicine at the Center for Music in the Brain at Aarhus University. Examples of genres of “groove-based music” include funk, hip-hop, jazz and Afro-Cuban music. Musicians also use groove in a broader context, such as to describe a rhythmic movement or to feel connected as a group while playing. Scientists, however, use the term more narrowly to describe the pleasurable urge to move to music.

But not all music moves us. A key musical element seems to be rhythmic complexity.

Research has consistently reported an inverted U relationship between subjective reports of groove and syncopation interruptions of the normal time signature of the music, and an element of rhythmic complexity.

People find that music with moderate rhythm complexity evokes more groove feelings than music with low or high rhythm complexity.

There seems to be a Goldilocks zone for predictability and complexity in music: too little complexity and it’s boring — there’s no need to predict anything. Too much complexity and it’s too hard — we can’t understand what we’re listening to, let alone predict what’s coming next.

“We need some regularity to be able to move, but if it’s too irregular, we can’t even predict where the beat is,” Witek said.

Researchers suspect that one of the brain’s most important functions is to predict what the world will bring and compare this with what actually happens.

If something doesn’t match the brain’s prediction, for example an unexpected syncopation in a song, a prediction error occurs.

“The idea is that we have some kind of fundamental drive to minimize prediction error,” Matthews said. Being able to make accurate predictions about the world increases survival, he said.

The reason we tend to groove to music rather than, say, the sounds of a babbling brook or a lecture is that music has more predictable patterns than the sounds of nature or human speech. Music has a time signature that we can predict, but the notes in the song can deviate from it, adding to the complexity and difficulty of prediction.

Moving to music—whether it’s clapping hands, bobbing your head, or dancing—is one way to add new sensory input that can minimize prediction error by reinforcing the underlying musical time signature.

But with just the right amount of complexity, it becomes fun to imagine what comes next.

“We like a challenge,” said Matthews, who theorizes in a recent paper that the process of minimizing prediction errors in music is intrinsically rewarding. “We’re drawn to something that’s challenging and not just perfectly regular.”

What a Grooving Brain Looks Like

Groovy sounds cause the brain to respond differently.

In a 2020 neuroimaging study, Matthews, Witek, and their colleagues had 54 subjects listen to musical sequences containing piano chords of medium or high rhythmic complexity and observed how brain activity changed in response.

The subjects reported stronger sensations from groove to medium complexity. In the brain scans, how pleasant the subjects rated the sounds was correlated with activity in the ventral striatum, which receives dopamine and is important for reward- and motivation-related behavior.

The researchers also found increased neural activity in brain regions involved in movement or movement timing, including the premotor area, basal ganglia, and supplementary motor area. Strikingly, these brain regions continued to light up under the brain scanner even without the subjects moving, and were associated with their self-reported urge to move.

There is a “privileged connection” between the auditory system and the motor system of the brain for controlling movement and timing, Matthews said.

In a 2018 study, Etani and his colleagues reported that the optimal tempo for getting into the groove is around 107 to 126 beats per minute. Interestingly, this tempo is similar to what DJs typically play at music events and is akin to our preferred walking speed of about two steps per second, Etani said.

Interestingly, the vestibular system, which controls balance, may also play a role in grooving.

A 2022 study followed people attending an electronic music concert. During the show, researchers periodically turned on a very low-frequency bass sound that people can’t consciously hear but can be processed by the vestibular system. They found evidence that the deep bass in dance music may be a key to getting people to, well, dance: When the low-frequency bass was turned on, participants moved an average of 11.8 percent more.

Music builds bonds and blurs boundaries

Music is often a communal experience that brings people together.

Groove can help us synchronize not only our brains and bodies with the music, but also with each other.

“I think the social bonding effect of music is related to the sensation or experience of groove,” Etani says.

People listen to the same music, move together, and research has shown that synchronicity between people predicts how similar they feel and prosocial behavior. In this way, music can play an important role in strengthening social bonds.

When we all follow the same drummer, the lines between “you and the music and the people around you” blur, Witek says.

Do you have a question about human behavior or neuroscience? Email [email protected] and perhaps we will answer this question in a future column.

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