All Things Groove: A Brief Literature Review

All Things Groove: A Brief Literature Review
Ryan Davis


It is practically indisputable that listening to music is a multidimensional experience. Engaging in a musical experience as a listener is a particularly complex phenomenon, and it is especially curious that we, as human beings, often experience a compulsion to move along to the music that we hear. We seem to receive some sort of satisfaction from this aural-to-physical connection, and this engagement perhaps heightens our overall musical and personal experience. The concept of groove, which in recent years has become a widely researched topic, is a means to learn more about the musical properties that invite a listener into a more profound relationship with the music. When one hears the word groove, it likely sparks imagery of a comfort zone, or perhaps a consistent momentum of sorts, or even being in a positive state of mind. In a musical context, groove is a rather broad term, and brings forth many questions when searching for its precise meaning. What in fact makes music groovy? Can groove exist in any type of music, or is it restricted to a select few genres? Is groove simply a matter of musical taste, that is highly personal and subjective, or can it be universally identified, regardless of who is listening? Many researchers have sought out to answer these questions and many more, using a diverse series of approaches. For the purposes of this literature review, the content will be organized in a fashion firstly addressing the many definitions and functions that have led numerous researchers to a greater understanding of groove, followed by the implications of groove in different musical genres, in hopes of discovering new insights. One might question the importance or merit of delving into the meaning of groove. After all, could our understanding of groove best be left explained as a simple path to enjoyment for the listener? Perhaps an even greater enjoyment and appreciation of music begins to exist as we investigate the deeper components of groove and its impact.

Charles Keil, in his “Defining Groove” (2010), explains how the word itself has yet to be understood as having a singular concrete definition, and is still not currently interchangeable with words akin to “swing, flow, focus, grace, in the pocket…etc”. Keil’s approach to defining groove is an engaging one, in that he seems to seek his definition through somewhat casual observations, pulled from a remarkable wealth of personal musical experience, as opposed to rigorous scientific testing. He speaks of a groove being created via “participatory discrepancies” and defines them as “measurable differences or discrepancies in attack points and release points along a time continuum.” Therefore, is groove perhaps achieved by musicians consciously or unconsciously creating subtle rhythmic imprecision or by taking small rhythmic liberties? Using a rhythm section as an example, Keil explains further: “the drummer and bassist are consistently in synchrony with each other, but they are also consistently discrepant, different, slightly out of phase or in and out of phase with each other.” While it is not possible to know if all performing musicians are aware of this rhythmic push-and-pull as it occurs in real time, it is helpful to acknowledge that some degree of rhythmic flexibility is present. Another notable definition is from Oliver Senn and Lorenz Kilchenmann, taken from “The Secret Ingredient” (2009): “its principal meaning describes the music’s effect on musicians and listeners: music with a good groove incites people to engage emotionally with the music, and to participate with their bodies.” This reinforces the notion that listening to music is indeed a complex activity, with many linked human systems simultaneously reacting. Maria A. G. Witek provides another possibility: “due to the repetitiveness of the groove, it was hypothesized that microtiming in groove might facilitate a type of arousal that is not peak-based, but rather reflects the groove state of listening, which has been conceptualized as a steady mental state in synchronization with the music,” (Groove Experience, 2009). Focusing primarily upon the repetitive naures of music, Richard Middleton, in his “In the Groove or Blowing Your Mind?” (1986) concludes that “the production of musical syntaxes involves active choice, conflict, redefinition; at the same time, their understanding and enjoyment take place in the theatre of self-definition, as part of the general struggle among listeners for control of meaning and pleasure.” It becomes increasingly clear that a universal definition of groove is difficult to create, however one can certainly summarize that it would encompass rhythm, pleasure, microtiming, and physical movement.

In “Groove as Familiarity with Time” (2013), Rowan Oliver explores in depth many fascinating aspects of groove that emphasize its presence in a variety of musical genres. As each genre of music is defined by its unique set of sonic characteristics, it is of significance that a musician has the ability to manipulate sound in such a way that makes groove malleable between styles. Oliver explains that a musician can use timing as an expressive force, as long as he/she is aware of the “contextual senses of time”, which he divides into three useful categories: “1) In the first category, the contextual sense of time is contingent upon shared prior knowledge on the part of all musicking participants, as in the reggae ‘one-drop’ rhythm, for example. 2) In the second category, a musician ‘sets up’ the contextual sense of time in some way prior to the start of a performance proper for the benefit of the other musicking participants, as in styles based around a stated timeline pattern. 3) The third category relies on a shared sense of metronomic time, although in practice this tends to be more of a general feeling of an underlying isochronous pulse rather than a precisely ‘metronomic’ understanding.” Oliver’s distinctions can perhaps be applied to detect groove in a variety of types of music. Stereotypically, groovy music is usually linked to styles of swing, jazz, and funk, although these principles can certainly be related to other genres. The way in which a conductor gives a preparatory beat gesture to an orchestra no doubt influences the following sonic outcome, and it’s possible that such gestures impact the groove of a type of music. Mark Jonathan Butler’s “Unlocking the Groove” (2006) investigates the realm of electronic dance music (EDM), which in the last decade has exploded in popularity, and points to relevancy when discussing groove. Many EDM tracks have a driving, quasi-hypnotic repetitive structure, and undoubtedly cause listeners to move along to the music.

Petr Janata, Stefan T. Tomic, and Jason M. Haberman present another refreshing approach to studying groove. In “Sensorimotor Coupling in Music and the Psychology of the Groove” (2012), Janata aimed to define groove as a psychological construct, and used surveys of university students to see if participants identified similar constructs that could be appropriated to groove. “In closing, we consider the construct of the groove in relation to the evolution of entrainment and social behavior. Synchronizing with the beat is the simplest form of entrainment, not only with a musical stimulus, but also with other individuals.” Many of the survey’s musical examples were taken from a diverse selection, and reinforce that groove is a flexible and far-reaching concept.

As shown, the research directed towards the somewhat elusive concept of groove is growing, and we are beginning to identify salient characteristics that aid in describing the mystifying experience of listening to music. The dialogue for developing our understanding of groove is in flow, and perhaps Charles Keil said it best, “that commitment to keeping up your musical life and keeping your participatory mode going is what keeps us on the same wavelength, keeps us in the same groove,” (Music Grooves, Charles Keil & Steven Feld, 1994).


Works Consulted/Cited

Butler, Mark Jonathan. (2006). Unlocking the Groove: Rhythm, Meter and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music. Bloomington, USA: Indiana University Press.

Janata, Peter., Tomic, Stefan T., & Haberman, Jason M. (2012). Sensorimotor Coupling in Music and the Psychology of the Groove. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 141(1), 54-75.

Keil, Charles. Defining Groove. (2010). PopScriptum 11: The Groove Issue. University of Berlin.

Keil, Charles., Feld, Steven. (1994). Music Grooves: Essays and Dialogues. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press.

Madsion, Guy. (2006). Experiencing Groove Induced by Music: Consistency and Phenomenology. Music Perception, 24(2), 201-208.

Middleton, Richard. (1986). In the Groove or Blowing Your Mind? The Pleasures of Music Repetition. Popular Culture and Social Relations. 159-176.

Oliver, Rowan. (2013). Groove as Familiarity with Time. Music and Familiarity: Listening, Musicology and Performance. 239-252.

Senn, Oliver., Kilchenmann, Lorenz. (2012). The Secret Ingredient: State of Affairs and Future Directions in Groove Studies. Musik-Raum-Akkord-Bild: Festschrift zum 65. 799-810.

Witek, Maria A. G. (2009). Groove Experience: Emotional and Physiological Responses to Groove-Based Music. European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music, 573-582.

Witek, Maria A.G., Clarke, Eric F., Wallentin, Mikkel., Kringelbach, Morten L., Vuust, Peter. (2014). Syncopation, Body-Movement and Pleasure in Groove Music. PLoS ONE, 9(4), 1-12.

Zagorski-Thomas, Simon. (2007). The Study of Groove. Ethnomusicology Forum, 16(2), 327-335.

Zbikowski, Lawrence M. (2004). Modelling the Groove: Conceptual Structure and Popular Music. Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 12(9), 272-297.

4 thoughts on “All Things Groove: A Brief Literature Review

  1. Thanks for these interesting definitions! I found myself thinking about my group project, where Jordan views groove more as a “steady mental state” but I as with slight time discrepancies, as Keil mentions. I’m curious, especially after your research into the topic, how you would personally define groove?

  2. This was really interesting! It was cool to see how differently people can define “groove.” Do you think there is one, correct definition of groove, or do you think that a combination of these definitions best defines what groove embodies? For the purpose of your project, which definition do you find most helpful and which will you use? I also found it interesting how some people define groove in a personal type of way that is unique to each person and others define it in a sort of mathematical or scientific way. Which way of defining groove do you find more accurate?

  3. To be honest, I personally think that groove can be defined in a multitude of ways, depending on its functionality … as a default, however, I would tend to lean more towards groove as a personal, idiosyncratic experience. I say this because in my own musical experience, I have found groove to exist in diverse types of music, and can only safely say that a rhythmic ebb and flow (predictable or not) was a large component of that existence. It doesn’t really bother me that there is no apparent “true” definition at this point, as a broader definition is more inviting to multiple interpretations!

  4. This is a fascinating topic, of course, and your lit review is helpful in identifying various ideas and approaches to this topic. Here are a few comments/suggestions:
    1. It is customary in empirical writing to associate statements with specific sources using parenthetical autho-date references, even for rather general observations. For example, you write: “it is especially curious that we, as human beings, often experience a compulsion to move along to the music that we hear” (par. 1). Who has commented on this before you? Also, has anybody else writeen about the “aural-physical satisfaction” you mention? Then, when you write that many have investigated groove, you should reference a few representative studies in parentheses at the end of the sentence.

    2. As you note in your lit review, defining groove is complex at least in part because the experinece of music is complex, and that it might be highly subjective, delimited, possibly, by both individual and musical traits. Thus, it would seem that a possible direction for your project would be to attempt to define groove for one specific group and within one specific musical practice. The School of Music might be a pracmatic place to begin, and you might investigate conceptions of gropve as represented by the students there and the different musical genres that these students practice. I think we have spoken about possibly using some interview or survey methods for this. Your findings from these could then lead you to propose some other follow-up study, which could become part of your final presentation for the course. There are various ways you could design the interviews and/or questionnaires, and you might include materials from your readings so far (e.g., statements from various athors about groove, which your participnats could rate, and associate with a specific genre or even musical work or musical experience they have had).

    3. Another idea might be to develop or use Oliver’s system in some way. It seems like a potentially fruitful conceptual framework. Could it lead to some experiment or exploratory study?

    4. Finally, one source/authro you might to look into is Anne Danielsen and her book “Presence and Pleasure: The Funk Grooves of James Brown and Parliament”.

    Looking forward to the next step!

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