January 31st, 2023
Written by: Catrina Hacker
Like many others, one of the things I missed the most while locked down during the COVID-19 pandemic was live music. The ability to simply pop in our headphones and listen to anything we want is convenient, but there are many things that make live music a different experience. To start, there’s the social aspect of being surrounded by other people who are equally excited to listen, sing, and dance with you. Then there are the acoustics of the room that cause the sound to bounce around and land on your ear differently depending on where it’s played. (Different acoustics is why many of us feel ready for American Idol while singing in the shower and less confident singing in another room). Live music is also an exciting opportunity to see the artists that we love perform and remind us that there are real people behind those album covers. These are all important contributors to our experience of live music, but another factor that has recently interested neuroscientists is the ability to literally “feel the music”.
If you’ve ever been to a concert with the bass turned up, you’ve probably experienced the feeling of those low frequency sounds, often called the bass, rolling through your body. People commonly report that the presence of bass in music is a pleasurable experience that makes them want to dance. Scientists reasoned that this could be because low frequency sounds have both an auditory (hearing) and tactile (feeling) component. To see if this was true, researchers designed an experiment in which they asked people to listen to music clips while sitting in a car and controlled how much they could feel the music1. One group of people listened to the music clips through headphones (auditory only) while another group of people listened to the same music clips through their headphones but had a subwoofer placed behind their seat that allowed them to feel the vibrations of the bass (auditory and tactile). They found that people who listened to the music with the stimulation of the subwoofer said that they enjoyed the music more and were more likely to dance than the people who just listened through headphones. This showed that the tactile component of music is important to our enjoyment and linked to the urge to dance.
Recently, researchers took these findings into the real world and asked if they could change how likely concertgoers were to dance at an electronic dance music concert by playing very low frequency sounds2. Concertgoers agreed to wear headbands that tracked their movement throughout the concert as the experimenters turned low frequency sounds on and off. They found that people danced more when their low frequency speakers were turned on than when they were turned off.
Afterward, they wanted to know if their low frequency speakers had changed the auditory component of the sound, so they brought people into the lab to test this. They played two clips of music for the participants, one with the low frequency sounds and one without and asked them to say which had the low frequency sounds. Surprisingly, people could not tell the difference between the clips, meaning music with these added frequencies caused people to dance even though they did not change the sound of the music at all. This is possibly because the low frequency sounds added an additional tactile component without adding an auditory component.
Like many things in neuroscience, the complexity of so many things coming together to form a single experience is both challenging and exciting. The process of going from feeling and listening to music to dancing involves coordination between our auditory, tactile, and motor systems. These have all been well studied alone by neuroscientists, so an exciting next step is to apply that knowledge to figure out how these signals come together to compel us to dance. Humans aren’t the only species that dances, so another exciting question is why so many animals dance and whether all our brains have evolved to do this for the same reasons or in the same way.
Although there are many exciting questions left to answer, what we’ve already learned about the importance of feeling to the enjoyment of music can be used to improve how we consume music. Headphones are convenient but they take away most of the feeling of music. Could we enjoy our music more if we also had sensors on our bodies to add that sensation? This knowledge can also be used to improve our health. If tactile stimulation is more important than loudness in making music enjoyable, we can use this information to change how we play music at concerts and through headphones to increase pleasure while minimizing the risk of hearing damage. And even without developing new technology, hopefully the next time you want to dance you turn up the bass, feel the music, and enjoy.
1. Hove, M. J., Martinez, S. A. & Stupacher, J. Feel the bass: Music presented to tactile and auditory modalities increases aesthetic appreciation and body movement. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 149, 1137–1147 (2020).
2. Cameron, D. J. et al. Undetectable very-low frequency sound increases dancing at a live concert. Curr. Biol. 32, R1222–R1223 (2022).
Cover Photo by Aleksandr Popov on Unsplash.
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