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The Instant Effects of Electronic Dance Music: Floating in Unity

This article is a continuation of the series about the instant effects of electronic dance music.

The first part of the article emphasizes on music being a catalyst for social bonding and forging group identity. The second part presents discoveries on the significance of simple bass lines and a steady kick drum beat at high volume levels leading to a floating sensation.


Part 1: Music Unites

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Findings in music psychology suggest that music originates from a basic human need for entertainment. Music can influence the social behavior of groups, creating a sense of community and forging social bonds and fostering positive interactions, are a modern day example. As described in my previous articles, electronic dance music is designed to have an ecstatic effect on its audience. “Trance”, the name of the associated musical genre, says it all. Crowds dancing at clubs or outdoor venues seek altered states of consciousness, often heightened by a synesthetic multimedia fusion between sound, visuals, stunning decorations, and spectacles like laser shows and fire acrobatics.

A rave creates a space for connection through rhythm transcending social boundaries. In Trance Formations, religious scientist and book author Robin Sylvan goes so far as to claim that rave culture around the world manifests signs of a new spiritual movement. This is not surprising considering the historical background of religious music dating back many millennia, whose purpose was to help worshippers forget their day-to-day concerns and transport them into the realm of the spiritual.

chemical structure of oxytocin

Released by the pituitary gland, the hormone oxytocin has a similar effect. It plays a role in the contraction of the uterus during labor and is presumed to influence the bond between mother and child. It may also be significant in building pair bonds in couples following its release post-orgasm. Ecstatic experiences of any kind appear to release the hormone in both men and women.

A hypothesis by Prof. Walter Freeman at UC Berkeley, Neurophysiology Lab, suggests that oxytocin is released when people dance, listen to music, and enter trance states.

Music affecting the body this way and inducing a trance-like state (i.e. dancing to music leading to a motoric trance) may lead to self-reinforcing feelings of well-being that encourage social bonding.


Part 2: Floating on High Volume

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What appeals to those who frequent clubs and parties about music played at extremely high volumes? Why do people enjoy listening to loud music but not to equally loud noise from machines?

In a previous blog article, I discussed the importance of clear frequency separation (bass, middle, high range) of instruments and voices for a song to exert optimal effect on its listeners. Why do bass lines or a simple kick drum rhythm have such a strong impact easily triggering a euphoric feeling? They appear more powerful than other musical elements in a song and they have a peculiar function.

Above a certain volume, music is absorbed not only through our ears but through the entire musculosceletal system, i.e. through our muscles and bones. In electronic dance music, especially bass and kick drum sounds in the low frequency range get carried over to the audience at particularly high energy levels of sound pressure.

Empirically supported hypotheses suggest that high-intensity music (above 90 dB sound pressure level and between 100 and 300 Hz sound frequency, roughly covering the range from G2 to D4, the latter already fairly high for a bass note) stimulates the vestibular system in the middle ear through acoustic and nonacoustic vibration (note: The vestibular system controls our sense of balance).

In combination with the trance-inducing effects triggered by repeated loop patterns in rhythmic sync with dance moves, the result is a self-amplifying feeling of excitement, sometimes accompanied by pleasant sensations of thrills and shivers.

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We experience similar sensations in a rocking chair, when we are swaying our bodies, or on a swing. The effect is even more pronounced on roller coasters.

A research study conducted at the University of Manchester’s Department of Psychology revealed that repeated drum sequences from techno music above a sound pressure level of 90 dB cause acoustically stimulated electrical responses in muscle fibers (electromyographic reactions). They were without any doubt triggered by the vestibular system because they could not be interpreted to be processed by the acoustic human orientation system in the ears. The study is just a beginning. The findings are preliminary and cannot be confirmed conclusively, but the evidence is promising.

It is not my intention to issue a warning against the consumption of loud music here. But it is a fact that an extended exposure to sound pressure levels above 85 dB can irreversibly damage one's hearing organs. The average sound pressure levels at clubs lie between 90 dB and 110 dB. If the hypotheses about bass and drums cited above are true, transforming the arrangement of electronic dance tunes to a lower frequency range and attenuating the rather destructive high frequencies could be a means to making clubbing a less harmful but equally satisfying activity, provided such frequency transformations yield no other health dangers.

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