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Fri May 30, 2014

Anatomy Of A Dance Hit: Why We Love To Boogie With Pharrell

Originally published on Mon June 2, 2014 8:32 am

There's no doubt Pharrell's "Happy" is the biggest hit of the year so far. It spent 15 weeks at the top of the Billboard 100 and inspired hundreds of fan videos on YouTube.

Just a few weeks ago, six Iranian teenagers got arrested for posting a video of themselves dancing to the catchy song.

So what is it about "Happy" that triggers a nearly uncontrollable need to tap your foot, bob your head or move to the rhythm in some way?

It may be more about what's missing from the song than what's there.

Last month neuroscientists at Aarhus University in Denmark published a study showing that danceable grooves have just the right amount of gaps or breaks in the beats. Your brain wants to fill in those gaps with body movement, says the study's lead author, Maria Witek.

"Gaps in the rhythmic structure, gaps in the sort of underlying beat of the music — that sort of provides us with an opportunity to physically inhabit those gaps and fill in those gaps with our own bodies," she says.

A few years ago, Witek set out to figure out which songs got people onto the dance floor.

She created an online survey and gave people drum patterns to listen to. Some had really simple rhythms with regular beats. Others had extremely complex rhythms, with lots of gaps where you'd expect beats to be. Finally there were drumming patterns that fell in the middle of those two extremes. They have a regular, predictable beat, but also some pauses or gaps.

Witek says that people all over the world agreed on which drum patterns made them most want to dance: "Not the ones that have very little complexity and not the ones that had very, very high complexity," she says, "but the patterns that had a sort of a balance between predictability and complexity."

These rhythms offer enough regularity so that we can perceive the underlying beat, Witek and her team reported in the journal PLOS ONE. But they also need enough gaps or breaks to invite participants to synchronize to the music.

So which popular songs on the radio today have this optimal amount of complexity?

"I think the recent single by Pharrell, 'Happy,' is a very good example," Witek says.

The song is layered with predictable beats and complex, syncopated ones. The drums, the piano, the clapping and even Pharrell's voice create inviting gaps, she says.

But Pharrell isn't the only one who knows about this trick. Classic dance tunes in disco, funk, hip-hop and rhythm and blues also hit this sweet spot of syncopation, Witek says.

"Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder — those guys have a lot of tracks which seem to have this balance between predictability and complexity when it comes to the rhythmic structure," she says.

And don't forget about Ray Charles. His 1950s hit "I've Got a Woman" made everybody want to hit the dance floor.

But it's not just a song's syncopation that gets you to go from tapping your foot in your chair to standing up and full-out dancing. It's also the song's layers of rhythm, says neuroscientist Daniel Levitin at McGill University.

"In 'I've Got a Woman,' the drums are keeping a very steady rhythm. The piano is syncopated and the vocals are exquisitely nuanced in time," Levitin says. "It's very difficult to sing along with him [Ray Charles] exactly the way he does it."

So we don't sing with Charles. Instead we want to move with him.

"The more rhythmically complex the music is ... the easier it is to engage different body parts," Levitin says, "because they can be synchronizing with different aspects of the music."

So you're swinging your shoulders with the snare drums. You're bobbing your head with the piano. "And you might be wiggling your hips in half-time or something like that," he says.

Before you know it, you're up out of your chair and doing the twist.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Have you ever wondered why some songs just make you want to dance? Like Pharrell's song, "Happy," for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY")

PHARRELL WILLIAMS: (Singing) Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.

GREENE: It got people dancing on video all around the world. Well now scientists have a theory about why certain songs have this effect. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Maria Witek is a brain scientist. She studies people's emotions at Aarhus University in Denmark. But she also likes music, especially if it's groovy.

MARIA WITEK: The Meters are pretty funky. I like The Meters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAND CLAPPING SONG")

THE METERS: (Singing) Clap your hands now, people clap now. Clap your hands now, people clap your hands.

DOUCLEFF: So that's The Meters' "Hand Clapping Song" from 1970, and just like Pharrell's "Happy," it triggers a nearly uncontrollable need to tap your foot, bob your head - move to the rhythm in some way, and Witek thinks she knows why. Last month, Witek and her colleagues published a study showing that songs like these have just the right amount of gaps or breaks in the beat. She says your brain wants to fill in those gaps with body movement.

WITEK: Gaps in the rhythmic structure - gaps in the sort of underlying beat of the music - that sort of provides us with an opportunity to physically inhabit those gaps and fill in those gaps with our own bodies.

DOUCLEFF: A few years ago, Witek set out to figure out which songs get people out on the dance floor. She created an online survey and gave people drum patterns to listen to. Some had really simple rhythms with regular beats.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIMPLE BEATS)

DOUCLEFF: Others had very complex rhythms with lots of gaps where you expect the beats to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPLEX BEATS)

DOUCLEFF: Finally, there were drumming patterns that fell in the middle of the two extremes. They have a regular predictable beat, but also some pauses or gaps. Witek says that people all over the world agreed about which drum patterns made them most want to dance.

WITEK: Not the ones that had very little complexity, and not the ones that had very, very high complexity, but the patterns which had sort of a balance between predictability and complexity. So, where there's enough regularity to sort of perceive the underlying beat, but also enough complexity to sort of invite participants to synchronize to the music.

DOUCLEFF: So I asked Witek, which popular songs today have just the right amount of complexity?

WITEK: I think the recent single by Pharrell, "Happy," is a very good example.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY")

WILLIAMS: (Singing) It might seem crazy, what I'm 'bout to say...

DOUCLEFF: Witek says the song is layered with predictable beats and syncopated ones. The drums, the piano, the clapping - even Pharrell's voice creates inviting gaps.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY")

WILLIAMS: ...With the air, like I don't care baby by the way...

DOUCLEFF: But Pharrell isn't the only one who knows about this trick. Witek says classic dance tunes in disco, funk, hip-hop and R and B also hit this sweet spot of syncopation.

WITEK: Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder - I have a lot of tracks which seem to have this balance between predictability and complexity when it comes to the rhythmic structure.

DOUCLEFF: Not to mention, Ray Charles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT A WOMAN")

RAY CHARLES: (Singing) Well, I got a woman way over town...

DOUCLEFF: "I Got A Woman" made everybody hit the dance floor in the 1950s. Neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin at McGill University, says it's not just the song's syncopation, but also the layers of rhythm - layers that get you to go from just tapping your foot in your chair to standing up and full out dancing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT A WOMAN")

CHARLES: (Singing) She gives me money when I'm in need...

DANIEL LEVITIN: The drums are keeping a very steady rhythm, the piano is syncopated, the vocals are exquisitely nuanced in the time. It's very difficult to sing along with it exactly the way he does it.

DOUCLEFF: So we don't want to sing with Charles. We want to move with him.

LEVITIN: The more rhythmically complex the music is, the easier it is to engage different body parts because they can be synchronizing to different aspects of the music.

DOUCLEFF: You're swinging your shoulders with the snare drums, you're bobbing your head with the piano.

LEVITIN: And you might be wiggling your hips in half-time or something like that.

DOUCLEFF: Before you know it, you're up out of your chair and doing the twist. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.