What Is “Groove?”

24 Sep

You are at your favorite show and suddenly it hits you — your feet start tapping, your head starts nodding, you can’t help but move to the music.  The rest of the night is a blur.  You wake up and your new shoes have holes in their soles and your legs are sore, all from a night of spontaneous dance.  This sensation to move your body to music, also know as “groove,” has been a neglected topic of interest in music cognition.  We do not know what sound properties correlate with groove, nor do we know how perceptions of groove vary cross-culturally.   We don’t actually really know what “groove” is.

Guy Madison, a professor and researcher Umeâ University in Sweden, set out to define “groove” and measure individual differences in the perception of the phenomenon.  After a lengthy and winded contemplation, Madison settled on this definition: groove “evokes the sensation of wanting to move some part of the body.”

For this study, 18 Swedish non-musicians were selected as participants.  The listening stimuli consisted of sixty-four examples that represented a cultural smorgasbord of “world music.”  The excerpts included music described as African, African American, Indian, Latin American, Scandinavian, and South European in terms of geographical origin, and as jazz, traditional folk music, Latin, in terms of genre.  The tempi of the examples varied, ranging from a slow 55 to a hastened 280 BPM.  Each example was presented with a fixed duration of 8 seconds and was played through a computer, in which participants listened and then rated each selection.

The selections were rated using 14 different descriptive scales.  The scales included ratings that covered emotive qualities (happy,  intense, solemn) and as well as “motion” qualities (bouncing, driving, flowing, rapid, etc.).  Two notable categories included  “groove” and “having swing.”

Madison found that distinguishing  “groove” is just as easy as distinguishing other musical characteristics.  Specific to this study, groove  was the second most cited characteristic in the musical examples.  He concluded that when asked, participants are capable of identifying groove (this result encouraged Madison to question why research does not incorporate “groove” into other qualitative studies).  “Groove” was also found to be independent of “having swing.”  Madison noted this difference might be a result of the Swedish-language, as “having swing” is commonly associated with Swing music, not necessarily music that “has swing.”  He suggests that a similar study be done with non-Swedish participants.  Additionally, music that is composed predominately of swung notes (jazz, swing) were not rated with higher ratings of groove.  Lastly, tempo did not effect groove.  The results showed no correlation between the BPM of the excerpts and the discernment of groove.

So, what is groove?  These results do not lend much insight.  Not one of the properties under the emotive or moving characteristics show any apparent relationship with the perception of groove.  Even in Madison’s initial definition, groove is not objectively defined: rather Madison only accounts on how the phenomenon influences human behavior.  It seems that “groove” is to be left ambiguous.

Madison, G. (2006). Experiencing groove induced by music: consistency and phenomenology. Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 24(2), 201-208.


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