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Deep Bass Subconsciously Makes People Dance Harder and Scientists Don’t Know Why

We’ve all felt it, that moment at a concert or club when the urge to dance overtakes you and your body starts to move of its own accord. According to a new study published in Current Biology, very-low frequency (VLF) speakers pumping out deep bass makes people dance harder and the scientists behind the study don’t know why.

The study, called “Undetectable very-low frequency sound increases dancing at a live concert,” was designed to answer a simple question: Does low-frequency sound, namely that deep bass you can feel in your bones, make people dance more? To study the phenomenon, the scientists hired the electronic dance music duo Orphx to put on a concert at LIVELab, a concert and lab space at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. 

People attending the concert were told about its parameters and hooked up with headbands that would capture their motions. The scientists installed VLF speakers in LIVELab and turned them on and off every 2.5 minutes during a 55 minute concert. “Our data show that audience participants moved more, on average by 11.8%, while VLFs were ON vs. OFF,” the study said.

After the concert, the scientists interviewed the participants about their experience. “Post-concert questionnaire data indicated that participants felt bodily sensations associated with bass frequencies during the concert, and that these were pleasurable and contributed to the urge to move (all p < 0.001). However, the bodily sensations were not perceived as stronger than at similar concerts,” the study said. It didn’t seem like the dancers could really detect the presence of the VLF speakers, even if they did dance more when they were turned on.

In a separate experiment, the scientists brought people into a lab to listen to concert audio through two different sets of speakers. One had VLF and the other didn’t. Roughly half of listeners could tell which speakers were VLF, which is no better than chance. It seems people can’t identify deep bass when they hear it, but it still makes their body move.

Scientists don’t know why people moved during the VLF sections of the concert, only that they did. “Movement increased when VLFs were present, and because the VLFs were below or near auditory thresholds (and a subsequent experiment suggested they were undetectable), we believe this represents an unconscious effect on behavior, possibly via vestibular and/or tactile processing.”

The vestibular system is the part of your ear that gives humans a sense of balance and awareness of their body. It’s the complex canal system in your inner ear through which sound moves. “Vibrotactile and vestibular systems process low frequency sound, have close links to the motor system, and can affect groove ratings, spontaneous movement, and rhythm perception,” the study said. “One theory suggests the vestibular system in particular has a fundamental role in human perception of low frequencies, musical rhythm, and the urge to move to music, in part due to vestibular-autonomic effects.”

The science suggests that you can feel the deep bass in the music even if you don’t consciously hear it. It also might mean VLFs can be used to force people into a groove. “These results demonstrate that a complex, social behavior—dance—can be increased in intensity by VLFs without participants’ awareness.”

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