It’s the Bass That Makes Us Boogie

It’s the Bass That Makes Us Boogie
Woman dancing in a club with lasers. Credit: Getty Images / Tegra Stone Nuess

Concert goers danced more when music was supplemented with low-frequency bass tones.

Karen Hopkin: This is Scientific American’s 60-Second Science. I’m Karen Hopkin.

Hopkin: Ever notice that some music just really makes you want to dance?

Well, a new study shows that it is, indeed, all about the bass. Researchers have discovered that boosting the bass can increase the boogying during concerts. The results appear in the journal Current Biology.

Daniel Cameron: Music and musical rhythm have been kind of fascinating to me for a long time, since I was a kid. I love the way they make us feel.

Hopkin: Daniel Cameron is a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University. He plays the drums.

Cameron: As a drummer, you’re interested in making the crowd want to move and feel good and give a good pleasurable time feel. This is also related to my science work.

Hopkin: Cameron and his colleagues want to understand how music can engender an almost irrepressible urge to feel our bodies in motion.

Cameron: And we knew from anecdotal evidence and other experimental evidence that there was an association between bass and dancing.

Hopkin: So, people who enjoy electronic dance music, or EDM, report that the thrumming bass produces a sensation that makes them want to move. Studies have shown that our movements become more precise when we are focused on the bass notes.

Cameron: So, for example, if you have people tap along to a sequence of tones, their tapping is slightly more accurate, they’re more synchronized…when those tones are low in frequency compared to high in frequency.

Hopkin: So the researchers set out to determine:

Cameron: If you add more bass to music, will it cause more dancing?

Hopkin: Now, they didn’t want to manipulate the bass line in a way that was obvious. People might then consciously decide to take a bigger step.

Cameron: That might be interesting…

Hopkin: But it would also muddy the results…like if someone in a drug trial knows they’re getting the real deal and not a placebo.

Cameron: So we wanted to do a subtle manipulation, a very consciously undetectable manipulation.

Hopkin: So they broke out a set of very very low frequency speakers.

Cameron: These are specialized speakers. These speakers are similar to sub-subwoofers. Subwoofers might be part of a stereo system. These speakers can play lower frequencies than most stereo systems can. Even lower frequencies than we think can be heard are possible.

Hopkin: With their special speakers set up, the researchers staged a concert.

Cameron: We had the electronic music duo Orphx come to our LIVELab.

Hopkin: That’s LIVE…L-I-V-E…for large, interactive virtual environment. It’s a hybrid of a performance space, a laboratory, and a virtual environment.

Cameron: The people who came to the show were fans of the group. They wanted to see EDM. They wanted to dance. We asked them if they would like to participate in our experiment. A good number of people signed up.

Hopkin: Recruits adorned themselves with headbands bearing motion-capture reflectors…which the researchers used to track their movements.

Cameron: And then what we did was just, during the concert, turn these very low frequency speakers on, leave them on for two and a half minutes, turn them off. You can leave them on for two and a quarter minutes. For two and a quarter minutes, turn them back on. Take off for two and a quarter minutes. Continue on. Throughout the concert.

Hopkin: Now, you can’t hear when the speakers are switched on. Based on the survey results after the show…and the followup study of the manipulated audio clips…the concert goers couldn’t hear. Their feet knew something was wrong.

Cameron: What we found was, by looking at the motion capture data, people just moved more–they covered more ground, they moved faster–when the low frequency speakers were on. This tells us that the extra bass, at very low frequencies, causes more movement.

Hopkin: About 12 percent more moving and grooving. The concert…and the experiment…were a success. Best of all…

Cameron: People enjoyed the concert. The concert was enjoyed by everyone.

Hopkin: Which shouldn’t be a surprise.

Cameron: Dancing and pleasure really go hand in hand together. It’s something we enjoy doing with music, and it’s a pleasurable reaction. We show that bass is a part of this work.

Hopkin: Next up, Cameron says he’d like to look at whether bass can help bring us together.

Cameron: So people are more likely to feel good about one another and help one another if they’ve had some experience synchronizing their movements together. This is possible through dance, which is a fun and enjoyable way to do it. This may be why dance is found in all cultures and throughout human history. It is an essential part of being human.

Hopkin: So, to cut down on conflict, maybe just crank up the bass and cut up the dance floor.

Hopkin: For Scientific American’s 60-Second Science, I’m Karen Hopkin.

The above is a transcript of this podcast.



    Karen Hopkin is a freelance science writer in Somerville, Mass. She holds a doctorate in biochemistry and is a contributor to Scientific American‘s 60-Second Science podcasts.

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