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A groove is better with rhythm and harmony, new research shows


Photo courtesy of Concordia University

It takes King Curtis less than half a minute into “Memphis Soul Stew,” his best-remembered song, to really get a groove going. When it does, it doesn’t let go.

It’s that feeling of pleasure that intrigues Tomas Matthews, a PhD student at the This link will take you to another Web site Penhune Laboratory for Motor Learning and Neural Plasticity in Concordia’s Department of Psychology. In a new paper published in the journal This link will take you to another Web site PLOS One—Matthews’ first as a doctoral candidate—he looks at what makes people want to groove.

“In the psychology literature, groove is defined as the pleasurable desire to move to music,” he says. “You want to move, dance or tap along to it, and that feels good.”

The desire to move to music has been well studied already, including by one of Matthews’ co-authors, Maria Witek, now at the University of Birmingham. Witek’s research looks at syncopation—the de-emphasis of a strong beat in rhythm—and the effect it has on listeners. Her study shows that listeners enjoy a medium level of syncopation: too little syncopation is boring, like listening to a metronome; too much, however, is difficult to follow. Listener preferences could be charted on what is known as an “inverted U curve.”

Matthews’ study applies to harmony, the effect of several notes being played at once, like a chord on a guitar or piano.

“Harmony is a really emotive factor in music,” says Matthews. “It can really make you feel things. So if we combine medium syncopation rhythms, which are considered the grooviest, with medium harmonies, maybe that will push the peak of the inverted U curve higher. If we find a sweet spot for rhythm and harmony combined, that will interact and boost this effect even higher than with just rhythm alone.”

Matthews and his colleagues set up an online survey and eventually recruited around 200 people. Participants were played short musical sequences with three different levels of rhythmic and harmonic complexity (low, medium and high). The sequences, written by Matthews and his co-authors, used son and rumba claves, similar to those often found in Afro-Cuban music. The participants rated the sequences on how much they made them want to move and how much pleasure they experienced listening to them.

The researchers found that listeners rated music with medium syncopation and simple and medium harmony complexity the highest. Since both low- and medium-complexity harmonies are considered pleasant, Matthews says that pleasant harmonies boosted the inverted U effect of rhythm.

“We think that harmony is raising the listeners’ pleasure level, and that in turn makes them want to move more. Groove is a combination of pleasure and wanting to move, and harmony’s main effect is on the pleasurable aspect of groove,” he notes. “As well, the results for people who said they were interested in dancing showed higher ratings of wanting to move but not higher pleasure ratings.”

Matthews believes that those who enjoy dancing have a stronger association between groove music and movement.

This study was funded by Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, Erasmus Mundus Student Exchange Network in Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Danish National Research Foundation.

This article was adapted with permission from This link will take you to another Web site Concordia University.