Sub-hearing sounds can make people dance more — and they aren't even aware it's happening

Group of people dancing
People dancing at a club. (Image credit: Delmaine Donson via Getty Images)

Most people like dancing at concerts, but what factors affect the urge to dance? It turns out that sound frequencies below human hearing can lead people to dance more, a new study has found. And people may not even be aware it’s happening.

“Our whole sense of the beat is mediated by the vestibular system but nobody's really, I think, effectively confirmed that,” said Jonathan Cannon (opens in new tab), an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience and behavior at McMaster University (opens in new tab) in Ontario, Canada, who was not involved in the study. (The vestibular system is what mediates our sense of balance and body position.)

The experiment took place during a concert by electronic music duo Orphx at a venue called the LIVELab (opens in new tab) — a research performance center located in McMaster University that was specifically designed to study music and dance.

A total of 133 people attended the concert, and 66 participants agreed to be in the study. During the performance, the participants wore motion-capture marker headbands to detect head movement. Before and after the show they completed questionnaires (opens in new tab) that asked about their perception of the music and the sensations they experienced.

While Orphx performed, the researchers turned very-low frequency (VLF) sounds (8–37 Hz) on and off through the speakers every 2.5 minutes during the 55-minute concert. Thet then calculated head movement speed for both time periods.  

The researchers found that when the VLFs were on, the participants moved 11.8% more than when these sub-hearing frequencies were off. The researchers also noticed that participants in the post-concert questionnaire responded that they felt the urge to move their body in part due to the bass frequencies at the concert. But the participants also noted that they had similar feelings at other concerts. Based on the findings, the researchers concluded that dance can be increased in intensity by VLFs without a person’s awareness. The researchers published their findings on Nov. 7 in the journal Current Biology (opens in new tab).

This isn't the first time scientists have proposed that factors outside direct human awareness can influence behavior; for instance, in the 1980s, there was concern about the effects of subliminal advertising, with images flickering too fast for us to consciously register them. Later research found that while people can perceive such images, they had very little impact on behavior, Live Science previously reported.

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The new study does have some limitations. For example, participants at the concert might have danced more due to the surrounding crowd. “If a couple of people were consciously aware of the bass and dance more, that can have an amplifying effect in the crowd, and you'd see a lot of movement by everybody, even though most people weren't responding to it [the bass] at all,” Cannon said.

Cannon also highlighted the effect of touch on movement, noting that the low-frequency sound may have created vibrations people felt through the floor, which could have influenced the participants’ movement. “I wouldn't be surprised if our actual sensations coming from our feet are mediating this,” he said. One way researchers could prevent this effect would be by using a cement floor. “It’s not great for the dancers, but it would at least control how much vibration is getting to them through the floor,” he explained.

Cannon suggested that further research could focus on individuals to eliminate the crowd effect, and noted that he would also be interested to see this research conducted with people who are deaf or have impaired hearing. “I think that looking at whether people who can't report sounds at all are affected by these low frequency sounds would be one way to see whether it's really circumventing parts of the auditory system,” he said.

Cheryl Maguire

Cheryl Maguire holds a master's degree in counseling psychology. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, Parents Magazine, AARP, Healthline, Your Teen Magazine and many other publications. She is a professional member of American Society of Journalists and Authors.