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Inaudible, low-frequency bass makes people boogie more on the dancefloor

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Sometimes it really is all about that bass, especially at a science lab at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, which doubles as a music venue. Scientists there are studying the musical ingredients that make us want to dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: And during a live concert by the electronic duo Orphx, the researchers found that bursts of low-frequency bass - a kind you can't even hear - made dancing volunteers move their bodies 12% more than normal. The results appear this week in the journal Current Biology, and neuroscientist Daniel Cameron was the lead author. Hey there.

DANIEL CAMERON: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. OK. So I got to hear more about this dance party/science project that you all did. How did it work exactly?

CAMERON: We had this concert. Orphx, this fantastic electronic music duo, was performing at the lab. And we had a whole, you know, bunch of attendees for the concert who liked this music, who were coming to dance and listen, and we asked them if they wanted to participate in our experiment. All they needed to do was just wear a little headband on their head that had a motion capture sensor and then fill out some questionnaires, and then they could just go and enjoy the concert. So...

CHANG: Oh, my God. I would have totally signed up for this experiment. So I love to dance, and I will really get going when there's, like, this really loud, pulsing beat. But what's fascinating is your study is telling me maybe what's really getting me going is something I can't even hear. Like, what is the mechanism causing me to want to dance more?

CAMERON: We know that the vestibular system, which is our sense of balance - it's the inner ear structures that give us a sense of where our head is in space. That system is sensitive to low-frequency stimulation, especially if it's loud. We also know that our tactile system - that's our sense of touch.

CHANG: Yeah.

CAMERON: The mechanoreceptors on our skin and in our body that move from vibration - that's also sensitive to low-frequency stimulation, low-frequency sound. So if you've ever stood right in front of a loudspeaker at a concert, you can kind of feel it...

CHANG: Sure, totally.

CAMERON: ...Shaking in your chest. That's the tactile stimulation of sound when it's loud. So we think that those systems might be picking up on these low frequencies that you couldn't even hear or detect.

CHANG: Yeah.

CAMERON: And that's feeding into the - our motor system in the brain, the movement control system in our brain. So it's adding a little bit of gain. It's giving a little more energy...

CHANG: So fascinating.

CAMERON: ...From that stimulation through those systems.

CHANG: You know, I am one of those people who can't not move when I hear music, and I get that not everybody's like that. But can I just ask you, like, at a really, really basic level, do you have any idea why people dance at all?

CAMERON: I mean, why do humans dance? It's kind of a large-scale question. It's really hard to test as well. And there's definitely ideas and work on this. You know, why would it be evolutionarily adaptive for us to dance? So we know that moving together in synchrony when we're making music together and dancing together leads to social bonding. We feel better about...

CHANG: Yeah.

CAMERON: ...The people we're with. We feel more connected with them after we have kind of activities in which we're moving in synchrony together.

CHANG: Yeah. Sure.

CAMERON: So you can imagine this has potential advantage for groups throughout, you know, the long history of our species. We also know that people use music and movement for things like regulating emotions. So you see this a lot across the world throughout history with babies, taking care of infants. We try to soothe them.

CHANG: Yeah.

CAMERON: We sing to them, and we rock them along. So this idea of moving and singing and modulating arousal is also, you know, a functional thing to do. So there may be adaptive value in those kinds of things. And other people have worked on this question, but it's a hard thing to test...

CHANG: Yeah, totally.

CAMERON: ...Evolutionary reasons for dancing. But we've uncovered with this study one of the ingredients for how we dance and what makes us want to dance a little bit more.

CHANG: Daniel Cameron is a cognitive neuroscientist at McMaster University in Ontario. Thank you so much for joining us today.

CAMERON: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL ABOUT THAT BASS")

MEGHAN TRAINOR: (Singing) Because you know I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass - no treble. I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass - no treble. I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass - no treble. I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass because you know I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass - no treble. I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass - no treble. I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass - no treble. I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass because you know I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass - no treble. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mia Venkat
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.