The psychology and cognitive philosophy of groove

This project investigates why music makes people want to move, and why moving to music can feel so good. We look for answers in the sonic, cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying musical groove.

The project

We use an array of interdisciplinary approaches to study the relationship between rhythmic structures in music, the desire to move the body to the beat, and the experience of pleasure. Our methodologies include motion-capture recording, functional magnetic resonance imaging, subjective report, cross-cultural comparison and music analysis. Our analysis is grounded in theories of embodied and enactive cognition, treating dance and groove experience as dynamically distributed between the music, the body, the brain and the environment. 

Our studies have shown that listeners most want to move and experience the most pleasure in relation to musical rhythms that are neither too complex nor too simple. This ‘goldilocks zone’ of rhythmic complexity creates a balanced rhythm that is just complex enough to create tension and interest yet still regular enough to enable repetitive movement and dance. In the brain, this medium level of rhythmic complexity correlates with activity in areas that are associated with both motor and reward processing.

Understood from the perspective of embodied cognition, medium rhythmic complexity in groove invites listeners and dancers to fill in the beats with their body movements. Moving to the beat of rhythmically complex music affords the experience of physically occupying parts of the musical structure. In this way, enacting musical groove on the dance floor can give rise to a cognitively, socially and affectively distributed atmosphere – or vibe – where sonic, bodily, neural and environmental processes dynamically interact.

Research team

  • Dr Maria Witek, University of Birmingham
  • Professor Virginia Penhune, Concordia University, Canada
  • Professor Peter Vuust, Center for Music in the Brain, Aarhus University & Royal Academy of Music, Denmark

Doctoral researchers:

  • Tomas Matthews, Concordia University, Canada
  • Toni Bechtold, University of Birmingham
  • Victor Pando, Center for Music in the Brain, Aarhus University & Royal Academy of Music, Denmark


  • Witek, M.A.G., Liu, J., Kuubertzie, J., Yankyera, A.P., Adzei, S. & Vuust, P. ‘A Critical Cross-Cultural Study of Sensorimotor and Groove Responses to Syncopation Among Ghanaian and American University Students and Staff’, Music Perception, 37/4, (2020), pp. 278-297. 
  • Matthews, T., Witek, M.A.G., Lund, T., Vuust, P. & Penhune, V. ‘The Sensation of Groove Engages Motor and Reward Networks’, NeuroImage, 214/1, (2020), 116768.
  • Matthews, T., Witek, M.A.G., Heggli, O.A., Penhune, V. & Vuust, P. ‘The Sensation of Groove is Affected by the Interaction of Rhythmic and Harmonic Complexity’, PloS ONE, 14/1, (2019), e0204539.
  • Witek, M.A.G. ‘Feeling at One: Socio-Affective Distribution, Vibe and Dance Music Consciousness’, in David Clarke, Ruth Herbert & Eric Clarke (Eds.), Music and Consciousness II, (2019), pp. 138-160, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  • Witek, M. A. G. ‘Filling In: Syncopation, Pleasure and Distributed Embodiment in Groove’, Music Analysis, 36/1, (2017), pp. 138–60. 
  • Witek, M.A.G., Popescu, T., Clarke, E., Hansen, M., Kringelbach, M. & Vuust, P. ‘Syncopation Affects Free Body-Movement in Musical Groove’, Experimental Brain Research, 345/4, (2017), pp. 995-1005.
  • Witek, M.A.G., Clarke, E.F., Wallentin, M., Kringelbach, M.& Vuust, P. ‘Syncopation, Body-Movement and Pleasure in Groove Music’, PLoS ONE, 9/4, (2014), e94446.

Public talks and events

  • Heggli, O.A., Witek, M.A.G., Derdau Sørensen, S., Møller, C., Petersen, B. ‘Experiment: Music in the Brain’. SPOT Festival, Aarhus, Denmark (May 2017).
  • Witek, M.A.G. ‘The Pleasure of Rhythm’, What Makes the Perfect Song? Royal Opera House, London, UK (Nov 2014).
  • Witek, M.A.G. ‘“I Feel Good!” Pleasure and Body-Movement in Music and the Neuroscience of Groove’, CTM Festival, Berlin, Germany (Jan 2015).

Project videos:

The psychology of rhythm and the pleasure of groove