When it comes to dance, it’s all about the bass

Super-low-frequency sounds — ones below human hearing — make us move more and feel better

a woman and a man on a soundstage, both are using laptops and audio mixers to create a dance music performance. The room is dark and smoky, performers are lit by beams of blue light.

Electronic duo Orphx performs in a lab space that’s also a theater. This was part of an experiment on how bass sounds affect people's movement.

LIVELab/McMaster University

Every now and then a song comes on that makes you move. But why does it make you want to jump up and dance?  A new study suggests it’s all about the bass — even if we can’t hear it.

“Music is a fundamental part of being human,” says Dan Cameron. He is a neuroscientist in Canada at McMaster University. It’s in Hamilton, Ontario. Music and dance are found in all cultures around the world, he notes. “It’s something we use to feel good. Something we use to connect with one another.” But why? Cameron’s team wanted to find out what about music makes us want to groove.

The researchers hired the electronic duo Orphx to play in the LIVELab. This space is equal parts experimental lab and theater. Cameron was part of a team that used LIVELab to study how people respond to live performances. In this case, people were invited to take part in a techno music concert.

In the groove

The team specifically wanted to see how people responded to bass sounds with very low frequencies. In most music, bass provides the beat that people dance to. We don’t just hear that bass. We feel it, too. Our bodies are loaded with receptors — especially in the skin — that sense movement. They detect touch. They also can sense air vibrations caused by loud sounds. These receptors are the reason you can feel thunder or the sound from a really loud speaker. The team wondered if what drives the urge to dance might be sounds that were felt but too low to hear.

Before the Orphx concert started, the research team added an extra set of speakers to the LIVELab. These were not connected to the performers’ equipment. Instead, the researchers used them to play very low frequency sounds. These were too low for human ears to sense.

Each of the study’s 43 adult participants wore a headband with reflective balls attached to it. Cameras placed around the room sent out pulses of infrared light. This light reflected off the headband. The setup allowed the cameras to record in great detail each person’s movement through three-dimensional space.

The concert lasted 55 minutes. While Orphx played, the researchers piped in very low frequency sounds for 2.5 minutes at a time. There were 2.5-minute breaks in between those low-sound broadcasts. This let the researchers observe effects of the sub-audible bass on dancing even as the performers changed from one song to another.

Dancers moved about 12 percent more when the extra bass was playing, Cameron found. The participants also reported feeling good during the bass-y bits. The team shared its findings in Current Biology on November 7.

The brain may be behind this

The parts of our brains that sense vibration and balance are closely linked to those that control movement, Cameron says. That allows us to react immediately if something unexpected touches us or we start to lose our balance. It’s like a reflex. And that link could explain why people danced harder, he now suspects. “If they’re picking up on very-low-frequency sound, they might be adding that extra bit of vigor into their movements.”

Music doesn’t just work through the ears. It also works “through the sense of movement and vibrations through the body,” says Psyche Loui. She was not involved with the study. But this neuroscientist does study music and the brain at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass.

The new study shows “the importance of these very low frequencies in musical experiences you might come across in your everyday life,” Loui says. And, she adds, it may be a reason musical experiences bring people together.

Dancing isn’t necessary for life, Cameron notes, yet we want to dance. We enjoy it. “When we move together,” he says, “we often feel better about the people we’ve been moving with. We feel more connected with them and more bonded with them.” So the next time your favorite song comes on, don’t be afraid to get your groove on.

Alison Pearce Stevens is a former biologist and forever science geek who writes about science and nature for kids. She lives with her husband, their two kids and a small menagerie of cuddly (and not-so cuddly) critters.

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