There are two universals in this world. One, washing machines eat socks. And two, Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive is a guaranteed antidote to an empty dance floor. While I can't shed much light on the universality of the domestic sock devil, I can offer a few pearls of wisdom about why our bodies find rhythmic songs such as I Will Survive hard to resist.
A universal human trait
Dance and body movement have always been central to the experience of music, and evidence suggests that music and dance evolved together. Indeed, in many cultures around the world they remain inseparable. Even in western society, in which 'passive' listening to music has become the norm, we often just can't help but move along in time to the beat.
By the very nature of the parts of the brain it activates, rhythmic music encourages you to move your body.
And virtually all of us are capable of synchronising to simple rhythms with a high degree of precision. In fact, moving rhythmically to music, especially music we find pleasurable, is for most people spontaneous, accurate, and often hard to inhibit.
A reasonable conclusion, then, might be that moving to music is a universal human trait. But what makes such rhythmic movement possible, and why do we do it?
Dancing in the brain
By the very nature of the parts of the brain it activates, rhythmic music encourages us to move our bodies. This is because rhythmic music activates regions of the brain that control movement, including the supplementary motor area (SMA) and parts of the premotor cortex (PMC).
So not only do musical rhythms in general promote body movement, but rhythmic music we find particularly pleasurable is even more likely to encourage us to dance.
The power of music to activate all these different movement-related regions of the brain facilitates our ability to ʻtune-intoʼ or synchronise with a musical beat, especially music we particularly enjoy. Moreover, the extensive involvement of movement-related regions of the brain when listening to music offers compelling evidence for the joint evolution of music and dance.
Even more compelling evidence for the joint evolution of music and dance can be seen in the fact that we don’t even need to be consciously attending to music to feel the urge to move in time. For example, the sound of a rhythmic beat has been shown to increase activity in the putamen even when we're not consciously paying attention to it.
Of course, classic disco is not the only rhythmic music out there. Any music that contains strong rhythms, whether in the form of a song, a symphony or a movie soundtrack is likely to encourage us to move our body in time. However, in addition to its natural ability to make us move by nature of its rhythmic structure, I Will Survive — which, incidentally, has sold over 14 million copies — also has something of an ace up its sleeve.
Rhythmic movement is most comfortable for the majority of people at a periodicity of just under 2 Hz. In musical terms, that means we find it easier to synchronise with music played at a speed fractionally under 120 bpm.
What's the tempo of I Will Survive? 116 bpm: smack dab in the middle of our rhythmic movement sweet spot. And I Will Survive is in great company. 116 bpm is the same tempo as Mark Ronson's Uptown Funk and Daft Punk's Get Lucky. You may have noticed that they're not only hugely successful songs, but pretty effective dance floor fillers, too..