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What Is Groove in Musicology?

What is "groove" in musicology, and how can we look at it empirically through psychological, neuroscientific and ethnomusicological perspectives.
© Hans T. Zeiner-Henriksen, University of Oslo
In this article we will explore the term groove – as a noun and as a verb.
As a noun, groove generally indicates a certain part of an overall musical sound, mix, or arrangement. Allan Moore places the groove in what is “laid down by the bass and drum kit” (2001:34). This is not a definition, but it does reveal a common point of view about the most relevant instruments.
Vijay Iyer suggests that the groove
might be described (but not defined) as an isochronous pulse that is established collectively by an interlocking composite of rhythmic entities (Iyer 1998).
Though the groove’s relationship to the steady (isochronous) pulse seems rather vague in Iyer’s description, it certainly shows the link to a set of rhythmic components. But which ones?
Timothy S. Hughes writes,
A figure is not a groove unless it is designed to be repeated (2003:14).
The expectations created by repetition are vital in this respect. (see Danielsen 2006, chap. 8, and Hawkins 2008 for discussions of repetition). Solitary rhythmic events might affect the groove but do not contribute to any recognizable structure for it, which is important for the groove to be established.
Another central question: Does the groove in fact have to be established collectively, or can a single instrument (or sound source) supply it? When a sole bass drum sound booms out of the speakers in a club, and the crowd starts moving, is this a groove? This question raises the issue of the aesthetic qualities often linked to the term. Referring to Charles Keil and Steven Feld’s 1994 book Music Grooves, Iyer writes,
Groove involves an emphasis on the process of music-making, rather than on syntax . . . The focus is less on coherence and the notes themselves, and more on spontaneity and how those notes are played (Iyer 1998).
Like Keil and Feld, Iyer favours for his vision of groove the interaction of a group of musicians playing live, and the inevitable “miniscule, subtle microtiming deviations from rigid regularity” that follows (ibid).
Two further questions arise here: Are grooves only to be related to live musicians? And do grooves require deviations from rigid regularity? A recording of live musicians undeniably preserves groove relations, so the first question is less concerned with the actual presence of musicians than with some sense that the music is being played “live,” either in concert or on a recording. But surely music production techniques like multitrack recording, overdubbing, quantization, editing, and the use of drum machines, sequencers, and other types of electronic music equipment are also tools for the production of grooves, at least when they are used in a “groove”-preserving manner.
This leads to the second question. The performance ideal of playing as “tight” as possible according to the studio’s “click track” arose in many pop genres during the 1970s, especially around disco music. During the 1980s, sequencers and drum machines maximized this “tightness” while creating the expectations later to surround electronic dance music and its body movement. The use of electronic equipment is especially efficient for producing the machine-precise timing that is seen as appropriate for this genre. But the very same equipment and techniques are also used in other genres with very different ideals of “tightness.” Ultimately, while deviations from rigid regularity are certainly central to many genres of groove-based music, they should not be considered a prerequisite or universal quality of a groove.
Rather, grooves and what should be considered their vital musical elements should chiefly be seen in connection to body movement. Certain basic rhythmic pulse-oriented elements of a groove may facilitate a basic movement pattern while other sounds, appearing between the downbeats and upbeats or atop them, shape this pattern or even suggest alternatives to it (various body parts can move simultaneously to different pulses). Thus all recurring sounds that take part in this process should be considered elements of the groove.

MUSIC GROOVES

When “groove” is used as a verb, an adjective, or an adverb, it has an aesthetic connotation. In this form, several scholars have expressed similar notions regarding qualities related to grooves, in terms of both how they are reacted to and how they are produced.
The Norwegian musician and music researcher Carl Haakon Waadeland discusses the quality of “swing,” a term typically associated with jazz music, that has definite parallels to “groove”:
Swing is conceived as a quality of music performance, related to a process through which the musicians, both individually and in an interactive context of playing together, make a musical phrase – a rhythm or a melody – ‘come alive’ by creating a performance that in varying degrees involves playing ‘against’ a ‘fixed pulse’ (Waadeland 2001:23; emphasis in original).
Turning to the music listener and the experience of swing, he continues:
When exposed to music that we perceive as swinging, we often want to tap our foot, clap our hands, move our body, or, perhaps, dance to the music. In this way we experience how swinging and “groovy” music initializes “energy” and generates movements in our body, thus, various body movements may be seen as a consequence of an experience of swing (loc. cit.; emphasis in original).
Waadeland then extends this type of experience to comprise Western classical music (Bach, Stravinsky, a Vienna waltz), Brazilian samba, and Norwegian folk music, where every performance must swing “in its own specific way” (ibid.: 24; emphasis in original).
These perspectives on how swing is produced and received are in line with Keil’s notions of swing and groove:
It is the little discrepancies within a jazz drummer’s beat, between bass and drums, between rhythm section and soloist, that create ‘swing’ and invite us to participate (Keil 1987:277).
Keil also argues that participatory discrepancies are present through the use of various types of sound production equipment and effects, including “space, echo, reverb, digital delay, double-tracking” (ibid.: 282). Such effects can introduce important dimensions to a track, but for groove-based popular music, entry points at precise positions, echo- or delay-effects that strengthen exact metrical subdivisions, and the absence of any reverb might be just as important.
“Groove” or “groovy” as a verb or an adjective/adverb is used to express a specific experience with music. The nature of these experiences may not be universal, but in line with Waadeland, one generalization is probably acceptable: the music grooves if body movements are activated by its rhythmic elements. How music is produced or played in order to activate movement varies according to specific cultural traditions to such an extent that the question becomes moot. The contributions of Keil, Iyer, and Waadeland, however profound, do not embrace all groove-based music. There are common features and similarities but also significant differences among the various genres. Why some people move to a certain type of music and others do not reflects the kinds of music to which they were previously exposed. Individual body movements and movement patterns are shaped according to the style of dance music in question, and familiar genres usually work better.

References

© Hans T. Zeiner-Henriksen, University of Oslo

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