Researchers Maria A. G. Witek, Eric F. Clarke, Mikkel Wallentin, Morten L. Kringelbach, and Peter Vuust have recently published an article investigating the relationship between rhythmic complexity and the human instinct to move our bodies to the music. The article is called Syncopation, Body-Movement and Pleasure in Groove Music.
Moving to music is an essential human pleasure particularly related to musical groove. Structurally, music associated with groove is often characterised by rhythmic complexity in the form of syncopation, frequently observed in musical styles such as funk, hip-hop and electronic dance music. Structural complexity has been related to positive affect in music more broadly, but the function of syncopation in eliciting pleasure and body-movement in groove is unknown. Here we report results from a web-based survey which investigated the relationship between syncopation and ratings of wanting to move and experienced pleasure. Participants heard funk drum-breaks with varying degrees of syncopation and audio entropy, and rated the extent to which the drum-breaks made them want to move and how much pleasure they experienced. While entropy was found to be a poor predictor of wanting to move and pleasure, the results showed that medium degrees of syncopation elicited the most desire to move and the most pleasure, particularly for participants who enjoy dancing to music.
The results suggest that if your goal is to make music that will make people dance you need a certain amount of rhythmic complexity, but your music needs to have gaps of silence. As listeners we naturally want to fill those gaps in some way, such as clapping our hands, tapping our foot, or dancing.
Daniel J. Levitin was interviewed for an NPR report on this article. He comments on the why music with rhythmic complexity seems to be better for dancing, because there’s a lot more for us to latch on to and move with.
The more rhythmically complex the music is … the easier it is to engage different body parts,” Levitin says, “because they can be synchronizing with different aspects of the music.”
Of course, this is something that many other musicians have been experimenting with for a long time. One of my favorite authors on the topic of jazz improvisation, Hal Crook, wrote:
Surrounding ideas with rest gives them shape and definition, in much the same a frame or brier defines a picture inside. It allows time for the effects of the ideas to be heard, realized and appreciated by the audience, the band, and most of all, you – the player.
I think these ideas hold true for a lot of music, not just music with an emphasis on groove. I’ve often felt that one of my best tools as a composer was my eraser. It’s easy to get caught up in writing down all my ideas, rather than basing my compositions around just the really good ones. In the end, you can say more by playing or composing less.
So my musical challenge for everyone this week is to practice with your attention on the silences. If you’re practicing jazz improvisation, intentionally use a lot of space in your solo. Try experimenting with some composition ideas that utilize a lot of silence. For the classical musicians, pay very close attention to how often the rests make a piece more expressive and practice musicality with that in mind.
Report back if you discovered something interesting or just felt like it was a waste of your time. Leave your comment below.