Towards a phenomenology of groove (a work in progress)



There are many ways to be in the groove. The commission-driven salesman, always in the lead finds himself in the groove – the business groove.

Jimmy the drummer says that is “is in the pocket!”…

The preacher in Crown Heights is in a rhetorical Groove – that is to say he has found his mojo. The line chef preparing the sushi has found Zen and the writer whose fingers dancing on the keyboard, well, you get the point.

The trio whose drummer and bass player are locked into a clock-like mind-meld creating a crevice for the piano to crawl through, stealing from the exciting energy of each fresh moment as it flies through time are in the groove.

The dancers, hearing this music, flailing their arms and throwing their partners along sensed waves of rhythm, shaking their hips and shuffling their feet in perfect grace are in a dancing groove.

And the sliding window that never fails to slide or, fall off its track, is in a groove; a mechanical engineering groove.

While these associations of groove are diverse enough to confuse even the most organized thinkers, they do share a common denominator. Ergo there is such a phenomenon, be it physical or other, known as groove. It is unchanging, whether being applied to a sliding window, swing dancers, jazz musicians, a writer, gospel preacher, salesman, or even a cheese grater.

I think I encountered the essence of groove twice in my life. The first time when as a guitarist playing in a quartet, I experienced communication with the other musicians where we made silent agreements on a psychic plane about the direction the improvised music would take. Ours was like E.S.P, all who were in the studio. The second happened at a wedding. On the dance floor there was unity among the people moving their bodies, all agreeing on the steps of some un-choreographed pseud0-tribal dance; so that no two people on the floor ever bumped into each other and there was a psychic connection so what I was doing with my body seemed to present a reaction to what the person next to me was doing with theirs, or vice versa. Or we were all being spun, twisted, twirled, bumped and playfully shoved by Terpischore, perched on a cloud above!

The vibrations were cylinder.

And after a while, I became convinced that somehow, in turn, the powerful psychic energy on the dance floor was sending messages back to the musicians, driving the rhythm of the drummer in new directions and forcing the soloist to make new statements, commenting on the motion of the dancers and swept away by it on an invisible wave. This is what I considered to be groove.

Have you seen a break dancer move their body as if their bones were elastic? Or in staccato jerks, imitate the strobe movements of a robot?

And what about the genius tap dancer who needs not necessarily an audible rhythm to dance to, yet feels one, creating a percussive accompaniment to the rhythm which is not heard – defying the idea that dance is a reaction to music, and suggesting it must be born from the same third-party source – the same groove.

(And if indeed a musical groove is attainable without an audible rhythm or other sound, and if not removed from music itself, then we will assume it is a result of music once heard and recorded in the memory bank).

Be it the syncopated 4/4 Rhythms of funk music, or salsa, or the swish-flapping wind shield wipers of the car – any organization of sound creates a groove. Though, one has to know how to uncover it, use it; enjoy it. This is what melts a good salsa or break-dancer into elasticity, and programs the funky robot.

Then shall we assume that the groove is a byproduct of the rhythm of the Universe – constructed, written or choreographed before the first note is heard?

The term ‘groove’ has managed to creep into our slang lexicon, though alas without an appreciation for the word’s origins.

The concept of groove is certainly related to the concept of rhythm. We often hear the phrase, “timing is everything.” We are talking about rhythm when we say, “I am really in a good groove at Work.” Or “the musicians were really hooked into a deep groove.” This means that the rhythm which the mind is applying to the activity is close to perfection. Or the activity’s relation to the time applied is so close to perfection that rhythm no longer matters. And when we say, “I am feeling groovy,” it means that the mind was able to conquer the obstacles presented by time or the stress caused thereby – and it is indeed a rewarding feeling – that is, one who feels “groovy” feels happy. When we are “in the groove,” we lose our concept of time.

The pressures of time have driven people to heart attacks and nervous breakdowns. So the trick of getting in the groove is to release oneself from such unhealthy constraints.

As a response to the above expressed inquiry, we shall not assume groove is a byproduct of rhythm – nor shall we assume it has to do with the natural rhythm of the Universe. Instead, let’s say groove is actually created by the mind when it happens on the ability to conquer such patterns of time.

(Or perhaps the mind is simply a tool used to uncover it — its domain, elsewhere or mysterious).

Another definition of groove is a narrow and long channel, like the gutters in a bowling alley; or the marks on a screw or, behold, the grooves on a vinyl record for instance, from whence the musical connotation is derived.

Hence we call groove – no matter to what we are applying the term – a niche or pocket, usually long and narrow. And it must be one that ignores or offends the regular pattern. It finds a way to subjugate any stressful or confining measure of time, such as mundane rhythms or deadlines or smooth even surfaces or graphical outlines on a page.

He that attains a groove in his activity has defeated the negative, pressure-causing constraints of time. If the gargantuan, architectural constructions or the fast-moving transportation and machinery of the Industrial Revolution managed to defeat, in a way, the formidable factor of space – I insist man overcomes the nervous conditions and constrictions of time by reaching a state of groove.


The groove vibration felt by a musician on the dancefloor is – as noted above – related to a natural rhythm felt in the drift of a point or event as it travels through the expanding universe. Two of the components of the universe, space and time are deemed infinite. Put together, they create an infinite bank of rhythms. The groove is created when the rhythm as a sub-product of time unfolds into the three dimensions of space: length, height and width.  These may be sped up or slowed down in tempo by adding velocity.

The notion of spacetime is not something new. Aristotle says the two belong in the same “class of quantities.” Einstein agrees with him, refers to space and time as being “doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.” [1]

“Time, past, present, and future, forms a continuous whole.” says Aristotle in the Physics. (This idea is similar to the descriptive terms used to define God in the Hebrew Torah: יהוה or YAWEH, which means past היה “He was…,” הוה present: “He is…,” and יהי. That is “He will be”). These unite above in the Godly realm, according to Kabbalah, and so time becomes unified as one whole, endless and beyond boundaries. Aristotle: “Space, likewise, is a continuous quantity; for the parts of a solid occupy a certain space, and these have a common boundary…”[2] The boundaries of objects found in space are animate in Aristotle’s space. According to Einstein, space; that is what makes up the universe is constantly expanding.

In the phenomenon of ‘groove’ there must be an art performed. That is to say the groove itself, as metaphysical phenomenon has to have a trigger in the physical universe to produce a psychic reception. Likewise, two parallel tracks do not create a groove until something rides along them. The dancer does not bend until the music does – and likewise.

Minkowski’s spacetime is drawn from Euclidean geometry in which there exist three dimensions in space (length, height and width); these are combined with time, in a way in which the latter element may not be subtracted.

This space, that is, the physical fabric of the universe is not to be perceived until some kind of event occurs on a coordinate grid such as an art that is being performed. These events, when mapped out on the grid, create a groove in the universe.

Of the psychic reception of groove, such as the vibrations felt during a tribal or folk ceremony or a dancefloor or field, it may be stated that the physical implications of time (that is rhythm or tempo) when placed in space (that is the metaphysical groove being felt by dancers) creates a gravitational vibration. The groove is not only made by artists, musicians and dancers, it can also be sensed, and illuminated by them. The gravitational field pulls them along it, so that the rhythm in the universe, the groove may be celebrated.

The groove is not an empty hole in artistic meaning. It is neither inner nor outer. It is both inside and outside. You may travel through it. It is expansive and ultimately infinite. Likewise it may be used for travel. You can take the groove from dimension a) to dimension b). (Later we’ll return to the topic of tunnels…)

The groove can either be mathematical or a-mathematical. That is to say, it exists on accord with and is illuminated by spacetime theory, yet one attains groove as a state of mind the best when he or she forgets about the cognitive science and mathematics such as in modern physics and focuses more on something else or on nothingness, such as in Zen. Similarly, the standard notation of music is imperfect. That is to say, as a code, it may be seen as a sketching of some universal form in time which is a song.  Though as you will hear time and again, while such concepts as musical rhythm, fractal designs may be graphed-out as a curve, the mathematics for the coordinates are not exact – they are imperfect, therefore a mathematical rendering of the groove is impossible.

Ezra Pound writes much about a mysterious ‘vortex’ and Vorticist poetry and art; in here there are hints at attaining ‘groove’. He speaks in his essaying of the abstract-geometrical painting of Wyndham Lewis:

“Lewis is Bach.” No, it is incorrect to say that “Lewis is Bach,” but our feeling is that certain works of Picasso and certain works of Lewis have in them something which is to painting what certain qualities of Bach are to music. Music was vorticist in the Bach-Mozart period, before it went off into romance and sentiment and description. A new vorticist music would come from a new computation of the mathematics of harmony, not from a mimetic representation of dead cats in a fog-horn, alias noise-tuners.

Besides for the lack of groove being felt in romantic art, he means to say that mathematical music such as in the baroque period creates a sort of groove. This is what Pound means by vortex. But certainly, he wishes to say it is the written notation and tabulation which forms the outline of what we will call groove, whilst the musician performing the written work or adding a slight improvisation is the one engaging in the art.

It is specifically the music of Bach and a little Mozart which is considered groovy. That is to say, as a constant phenomenon, the ‘groove may easily be missed’. If one performed a Bach minuet and thought too much about timing, i.e., signature and tempo, then they failed to reach the groove.

The musician should actually be able to see what they are doing, sonically. Seeing sound would be like ‘grooving’.

“The image has been defined as ‘that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.’” (Looking at audio waves might give us a hint of what this means). Now consider the writing of Pound:

… no artist can possibly get a vortex into every poem or picture he does. One would like to do so, but it is beyond one. Certain things seem to demand metrical expression, or expression in a rhythm more agitated than the rhythms acceptable to prose, and these subjects, though they do not contain a vortex, may have some interest, an interest as “criticism of life” or of art. It is natural to express these things, and a vorticist or imagiste writer may be justified in presenting a certain amount of work which is not vorticism or imagisme, just as he might be justified in printing a purely didactic prose article. Unfinished sketches and drawings have a similar interest; they are trials and attempts toward a vortex.

One might pick up a newspaper and find a style of writing which is not so transcendental, where it is clear that the writer was not able to maintain a groove in what he was doing. The more abstract and figurative writing tends to be, in order for it to express a simple point, the more apt it is to capture the essence of groove; that is, to put the reader there. ‘Vortex’ sketching and drawings which are unfinished to not signify completion because they are time images on an otherwise infinite space of measurement. That is to say, the canvas is the space, the unfinished image painted on it is the finite boundary which hints at endlessness. As Ezra Pound puts it:

The DESIGN of the future in the grip of the human vortex. All the past that is vital, all the past that is capable of living into the future, is pregnant in the vortex, NOW.
Hedonism is the vacant place of a vortex, without force, deprived of past and of future, the vertex of a small spool or cone.[3]


Considering what is written about the vortex, think now on other geometrical shapes when imagining the groove. Benoit Mandelbrot identifies the phenomenon of “fractals.” Appearing slightly psychedelic, fractals are infinite curves which may be felt by “winding through space” inversely off an ordinary line pattern. You are still drawing a 1 dimensional line, but there exists what is called a “fractal dimension” which “resembles” a surface. So imagine that you are riding in the passenger seat of a car and the window is rolled open as the vehicle moves along the highway at a speed of 70 miles per hour or faster. Your hand is a constant variable moving against the current, which is the velocity of the car as it rolls down the road – your hand pointed outward, sticking out the window creates a wind tunnel, as it cuts through the air. You wave it up and down and feel the cool breeze, the strange design you of wind you can feel the groove on your hand but you cannot see it. Now imagine that color dye has been added to the air and to your hand. The air is red, but your hand juxtaposed and creating a resistance to it is colored blue. The wind pushes some of the blue light from your hand and forms kind of an outline, a blue trace of the groove in the red wind. According to Mandelbrot, in his 1983 work, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, such fractal patterns are ubiquitous in nature – however, when most people hear the term, “fractal,” they are thinking of ‘fractal art’ and not patterns in nature which cannot be given a definite growth pattern and therefore create a liquid like movement which curves through a groove. The term comes from the Latin, “fractus” which means fractured or broken, and this term was coined by Dr. Mandelbrot, whose own work, queer as it may seem, was inspired by one Paul Levy – a 20th century French philosopher – who wrote a paper in 1938 entitled Plane or Space Curves and Surfaces Consisting of Parts Similar to the Whole. In this early thesis, the author describes a “new fractal curve” which is often made example of in geometrical pedagogy and referred to as “Levy C curve.” In the paper, Fractals and Chaos (2004), Mandelbrot describes ‘fractals’ as objects which have dimensions “greater than” their topological dimension. This creates as infinite groove on the graph.

To make models of the graph, various forms of software have been written to draw out two dimensional fractals on three dimensional spaces. Special algorithms are written to graph out such natural phenomena as cells of the nervous system and blood and lung vasculature.  Imperfect and shifting shapes known as fractals may be also found in the rings around the planet Saturn, sea waves, DNA and crystals; broccoli, cognitive subjective perception, heart beats, geometrical optics, river networks and fault lines – Mandelbrot finds them in mountain ranges and coastlines. Some commonly used fractal-generating software are: Aros Fractals, Artlandia, ChaosPro, Easy Fractal for Macintosh, Double Fractal, Fractal Image Generator, Ghost Diagrams, Mandelbrot Applet, Mandelbrot Explorer, Online Fractal Generator, Two-Dimensional L-Systems, Seractal Fractals Screensaver and the list goes on[4].


There is form in space, and it is bound to dissipate into oneness. But more importantly, there is form in time. A song – in the groove has form in time, which easily slips back into formless time. Ann Danielson of the University of Oslo did a paper on James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”: “In groove-oriented music,” she writes, “The basic unit of the song is repeated so many times that our inclination as listeners to organize the musical material into an overall form gradually fades away. Instead of waiting for events to come,” she continues, “we are submerged in what is before us. Dancing, playing, and listening in such a state of being are not characterized by consideration or reflection but rather by a presence in the here and now of the event. It is likely to believe that there is a connection between such an experience and the ways in which a groove is designed.”[5] Clearly, she would agree that her conception of “a groove” as she writes it, resembles a cone or small spool as in the essay by Pound.

Classically, musicians in the West have been trained to perform a melody in the context of the song and not in direct concert with the metronome. This is not so in groove music. For it is actually a freeing of form which creates the groove in space, both musically and on the consciousness of the musician. “The relation of subject and object is almost suspended. We operate within a continuous field where the limit between music and listener is not yet established or has vanished.” writes Ann Danielson in her essay on a popular James Brown number.

Picture yourself on a circular wheel, such as the ones you played on as a child on the playground. Three or so children could fit on the large wooden circles, and with your feet you pushed off the ground with one leg so that the wheel spun faster and faster. As you spun, like a giant dreidel, the landscape blurred into one; even gave the visual sensation of bending.

Let us recall now Ezra Pound’s aesthetic treatise on the “Vortex” in which he introduces Euclidean geometry as a “critic” of form and not an author of one.

when one studies Euclid one finds that the relation of a²+b²=c² applies to the ratio between the squares on the two sides of a right-angled triangle and the square on the hypotenuse. One still writes it a²+b²=c², but one has begun to talk about form. Another property or quality of life has crept into one’s matter. Until then one had dealt only with numbers. But even this statement does not create form. The picture is given you in the proposition about the square on the hypotenuse of the right-angled triangle being equal to the sum of the squares on the two other sides. Statements in plane or descriptive geometry are like talk about art. They are a criticism of the form. The form is not created by them.

When, as he puts it, “the right-angled triangle being equal to the sum of the squares on the two other sides” a transformation of form has happened, but this can only happen when a message is sent which travels through the groove.

The post-Einstein Physicist Stephen Hawking addresses the geometric realities and constraints of the planet floating about in space. In a famous lecture he delivered in 1999 he said:

The surface of the Earth, is what is called a two dimensional space. That is, you can move on the surface of the Earth, in two directions at right angles to each other: you can move north south, or east west. But of course, there is a third direction at right angles to these two, and that is up or down. That is to say, the surface of the Earth exists in three-dimensional space. The three dimensional space is flat. That is to say, it obeys Euclidean geometry. The angles of a triangle, add up to a hundred and eighty degrees. However, one could imagine a race of two dimensional creatures, who could move about on the surface of the Earth, but who couldn’t experience the third direction, of up or down. They wouldn’t know about the flat three-dimensional space, in which the surface of the Earth lives. For them, space would be curved, and geometry would be non-Euclidean.[6]

But in another lecture, he recalls Einstein and one-ups his theory of General Relativity, describing the possibility for Black Holes in the galaxy: “…space-time was not flat,” he said. “But was warped and curved by the matter and energy in it. In order to understand this, considered a sheet of rubber, with a weight placed on it, to represent a star. The weight will form a depression in the rubber, and will cause the sheet near the star to be curved, rather than flat.”

If one now rolls marbles on the rubber sheet, their paths will be curved, rather than being straight lines. In 1919, a British expedition to West Africa, looked at light from distant stars, that passed near the Sun during an eclipse. They found that the images of the stars were shifted slightly from their normal positions. This indicated that the paths of the light from the stars had been bent by the curved space-time near the Sun. […] Consider now placing heavier and heavier, and more and more concentrated weights on the rubber sheet. They will depress the sheet more and more. Eventually, at a critical weight and size, they will make a bottomless hole in the sheet, which particles can fall into, but nothing can get out of. [7]

As previously stated, the groove, then likewise, is not something created by mathematics, or even by music. It is not just a state of mind like being in a jolly mood. Ezra Pound writes on “Descartian or ‘analytical geometry’”:

Thus, we learn that the equation (x-a)²+(y-b)²=r² governs the circle. It is the circle. It is not a particular circle, it is any circle and all circles. It is nothing that is not a circle. It is the circle free of space and time limits. It is the universal, existing in perfection, in freedom from space and time. Mathematics is dull ditchwater until one reaches analytics. But in analytics we come upon a new way of dealing with form. It is in this way that art handles life. The difference between art and analytical geometry is the difference of subject-matter only. Art is more interesting in proportion as life and the human consciousness are more complex and more interesting than forms and numbers.[8]

Hool-a-hoop is an excellent example of what Ezra Pound intends. A hool-a-hoop is a thin plastic tube which fits around most human hips so that the hoop does not touch the body at any point, but only barely so, missing it just slightly. Someone stands inside the hoop and by thrusting the hips from side to side and even back to front, the hoop begins spinning, using the person’s hips as the cause of its motion. To master this children’s game, practice is needed and a certain degree of natural ability.

Even if the groove is created mathematically with location units on a plane, there is a graphical bend which occurs. The less of a bend on the grid, the lesser the form. If what Pound writes about Euclidean geometry and the Cartesian circle, then it is safe to say that groove music cannot be written. Standard notation may only capture the groove of a particular rhythm. In modern groove music (such as electronica), as with ancient music, written tabulation may only bring out one aspect of the groove rhythm, and not the entire piece. The rave scene was the counterculture answer to the electronic music revolution of the 1980s. In his 1999 essay, Visual Energy, Simon Parkin writes in literature describing a photographic exhibit:

In 1987 a group of DJs went over to Ibiza Town to experience the dancefloor trends that were beginning over there. These young men would be taken away by the heat and haze of their holiday in which they could lose all their inhibitions because they were abroad and existed in a “hyperreal” state where every day constraints of work and social order did not exist. To avoid their humdrum London doldrums these people were not just escaping the country, they were escaping their whole lives by becoming lost in a hedonistic atmosphere of sun, sea, sand and Ecstasy. It is this hedonistic escape from life into a virtual “non-existence” that would form the basis of a whole section of society wanting to go out clubbing every weekend – losing themselves in the new youth culture movement of Acid House.


And for our sake’s we will translate “acid house” as the standard electronic dance music of the day.This so-called “acid house” fad spread throughout Europe and the States and became the rave scene. The psychedelic drug called Ecstasy was prevalent at warehouse parties where strobe lights pounded in time to the mechanical repetition of various trends of electronic music. Simon Parkin continues his essay:

The Psychology department at Leeds University performed studies on a group of fifty ravers at an all-night event to find out what their emotional responses to the experience were. “Emotional responses are consequences,” says Mitch Waterman, Leeds University’s Music Psychologist, “that ‘I feel happy when something good happens’ – but usually I can say what the good thing is. For these people at the club, the response seems to be without content – it’s just good. It’s just a massive buzz. They don’t want things with a lot of content in; in the sense that they have to think about things and understand in any sort of aware manner. If the music had lyrics the responses would be nothing like those that we found”.

This music he is speaking of is designed to send the listener off into a state of euphoria. Repetition and texture are the aesthetic, dance is the objective:

This new kind of music “engages the entire sensorium, appealing to the intelligence with no interference from the intellect
“Acid House consciously wanted to break down the traditional idol worshipping in music which originally came out of the sixties super groups in an attempt to underline the music”. And it was the music which absorbed the club goer with its surrounding of the listener into an altered state – an environment where rhythm is the key to abandonment: “The pleasures of loss and abandonment would now be purely signalled by the ‘trance dance’ as the body would plug into a qualitively different space from that of dance in pop history”.[9]



The Minkowski metric can be written as a four-by-four matrix. In general relativity, matter (energy) is added to spacetime giving its coordinates a curve in their structure. This actually adds a fifth dimension to Minkowski’s four-dimension spacetime, so besides for the three-dimensions of space, with un-subtractable time, there is now energy. These create force-fields with gravitational pull. Apply now the bending of a line drawn on a coordinate graph built in spacetime, to the curvature of the bodies on the floor of the disco-tech during an especially spacey number. They bend, they curve and twist, moving through the groove around the structure. The mass of their presence on the space of the dancefloor creates a curve were the event to be mapped out on a Euclidean graph. A gravitational field may be devised when the bodies move to pull away from the cerebral vibrations and chorographical directions deriving in the music itself, and the opposite reaction when the bodies are pulled in. The repetition, the event happens so many times, slow the rhythm down, the bending in the gravitational field – the vibration felt by the dancers. The dancers might sense an unwritten choreograph, and they may sense as close to a nullification of horizontal gravity as possible, sensed by a lightness of the feet.

The connection between music and dance, and the certain value of music and the certain value of dance as it relates to a groove scenario enters the realm of neuroscience. In February of 2012, Stefan T. Tomic, Petr Janata and Jason M. Haberman did a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology entitled “Sensorimotor coupling in music and the psychology of groove.” The abstract reads as follows:

The urge to move in response to music, combined with the positive affect associated with the coupling of sensory and motor processes while engaging with music (referred to as sensorimotor coupling) in a seemingly effortless way, is commonly described as the feeling of being in the groove.[10]

This is why certain effects are used to compliment music at a dance party such as strobe lights and lasers; and equally worth mentioning, the synthesized texture and effects which may be added to a sound by an electronic fader, such as phaser, delay, echo, etc. In the thesis of the academic article, “Sensorimotor coupling in music…,” the concept of the “groove [is] widely appreciated and understood in terms of a pleasurable drive toward action.” That means to say, groove music induces a euphoric state in the listener. It makes you want to dance, or nod your head, at least. The repetitive and percussively performed harmonic structures in concert with the syncopated, sometimes downbeat or medium tempo rhythm leave one feeling calm and inspired to find a groove in the rhythmic structure. Since, as the study puts it “…a broad range of musical excerpts can be appraised reliably for the degree of perceived groove,” we can assume that if one were at a piano recital, say, it would be harder to find a groove than at a rock concert, say for instance; that is, unless the pianist was playing the syncopated, percussive/rhythmic piano style known as honky-tonk. Also worth mentioning, that Ann Danielsen finds James Browns’ “Funky Drummer” the appropriate specimen for the application of groove, as opposed to “This is a Man’s World,” for example, stands to certify the above quoted thesis.

In the third part of the study done by Haberman, Tomic and Janata, the bridge between the mind of the listener and the music itself as an independent monolith, is crossed: “…the degree of experienced groove is inversely related to difficulty of bimanual sensorimotor coupling under tapping regimes with varying levels of expressive constraint…” This relates to the phenomenon of randomly finding oneself tapping on a table in time, even if there is no music in the background.  Someone may ask you if you can “Please stop,” or “That is impolite.” Some people perhaps do not have this experience at all; but it is certain that if there is music in the room and somebody is tapping along “…high-groove stimuli elicit spontaneous rhythmic movements…”, then “…quantifiable measures of the quality of sensorimotor coupling predict the degree of experienced groove”: so one would factor in talent and rhythmic inclination.

As for “sensory motor coupling,” one must consider the light show at a rock concert or dance party to suggest the effect of a groove ambiance. Certain lights are programmed to flash and change in time with the music through a sort of sonic motion detector. This doubtlessly induces a trancelike state in partygoers who find themselves able to dance with more alacrity; the worries and troubles of the day dissipate from them as their minds play a game of focus on the metaphysical: matters of ‘groove’.


Groove is a state of mind which can be found in most any activity. It is a mood, a mode. In music, we have reached the pseudo-genre ‘groove’ with an understanding of syncopated rhythm. Syncopation in music is what makes the rhythm of the piece sound off-kilter, or imperfect according to the laws of time. Either way, music in standard notation is not a carbon statement. It is to some degree a sketching. This is true of the notes placed on and between the staves (harmonically) and the key signature, as well as with the time-signature and tempo which can only be fractioned-off on the chart and ‘felt’ by the performer reading the score.

A syncopated rhythm, therefore, stands for the rhythmic possibilities of a piece of music which are ‘inside’ the groove. One can also, as an instrumentalist or dancer, find the ‘groove-space’ in a perfect, non-syncopated rhythm, by simply ignoring the time signature and rhythm cues and playing the opposite. But as for syncopated rhythms, such as those which emphasize the downbeat – the first beat in a measure – as the rhythmic center, one could say there are particular denominations of music that always invite the performers and listeners to follow the groove recipe: jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, gospel, hip hop, reggae, rock ‘n roll, Latin, electronica, heavy metal, etc. The backbeat is a syncopated stress on the ‘off’ beat – this is the opposite of the downbeat. The downbeat is the beat in a measure, where the conductor’s baton is at the lowest point in its motion. It is this distance between downbeat – beat 1 and backbeat – beat 2 which creates the ‘groove’ and so this type of music is usually accompanied by improvisational dance. But overtime, throughout the course of Western music, the style of free dance changed. This phenomenon probably began in Baptist churches in America. This dancing, stomping and clapping to spirituals was moved to the ballroom floor where the Gospel was exchanged for booze and the spiritual Godhead was temporarily pushed aside.

The true meaning of the term ‘swing’ is often lost, or connotations of it are so skewed we must awkwardly go at the word’s meaning from unseen angles and perspectives. If a conductor or bandleader tells one of the musicians to “Make that rhythm swing.”, he is demanding something mental and even ontological of the musician. He is saying, “Play the rhythm in the pocket.”, which means: “Get into the groove.” But a swing beat may be tabulated, for instance, a “hard swing rhythm” is a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth note. All succinct eight notes which do not share an even count, so that they are at an “asymmetrical value” where one is longer than the next and vice versa or one is stressed more than the other, like in the case of our hypothetical drummer and his downbeat – backbeat scenario. Notes which are not “swung” are known as “straight notes.” A “shuffle swing” features a set of triplets where the middle note is skipped. On a jazz score chart, a normal 2/4 (half-step), ¾ (waltz/foxtrot) or 4/4 (straight-ahead) is followed by the style of music the performer should have in mind when playing the chart: shuffle, swing, rock, etc. But in classical music, the term ‘swing’ is not listed, nor any other style of music for that matter. These composers employ something called “compound time” which are literally triplets “within a duple meter”.


The groove is not a place devoid of emotions, actually it is quite the opposite of that. When one enters into a groove, through dance, music, sport or any other kind of activity from culinary efforts to construction and meditation – they purge themselves of certain negative thoughts, realizations and epiphanies which are released in an exertion of emotion. In other words they undergo an extreme catharsis which is why reaching a state of groove in just about any activity not only relieves the stress which it otherwise causes but also becomes therapeutic and fun – a game. Once a groove has been opened up in space, it can still be felt in the area after the activity has ceased. The release of cathartic sweat, as we shall refer to it, is an extremely potent chemical, to encourage – once again – a groove-level activity. Actors often talk about being-in-the-groove when they are on stage in performance. Perhaps they too, like the audience members, experience a kind of catharsis, but the catharsis experienced among the rhapsodes must be quite different than the classical catharsis of the spectators.

But as for music: the contemporary musicologist, Christopher Small, coined a term “Musicking”. He claims that music is not an object but a process and therefore linguistically, music is not a noun but a verb. This eventually serves to pertain to electronic music versus live music and for this, we shall return to the concept later. But in the meantime, this entices us to pay the artistic media a fresh purvey. Since it is a process and ‘groove’ is an ideal, more depends on objective feel – in this version – instead of individual acumen. Again, the audience has just as much to do with the music reaching a state of ‘groove’ as the musicians themselves playing the music. In the essay, “Groovology and the Magic of Other People’s Music,” musicologist, Charles Keil, writes: “Who wants to interview Bo Diddley or Horace Silver or a great jazz drummer with the double assumption that they may have mistaken ideas or models in their heads about their most basic skills and/or that they may be unaware of these or still other skills?” In other words, who wants to admit that as a baseball player, Dock Ellis does not have superhuman strength, and that when he pitched his no-hitter in 1968 against the San Diego Padres, he was simply ‘in-the-groove’ and even that state of mind was influenced by a psychedelic drug (as will be explained in the following chapter). “The truth is that some of the very best musicians do not know or want to know what they are doing. And this ignorance may indeed be their bliss and ours; you start thinking about the groove too much and you can tighten up ‘the necessary slippage’ [Feld, informal communication] or lose it completely.”[11]

As a child I would sit down on the piano bench in the living room and bang on the family’s brown, upright Acrasonic. I would come up with some fun musical ideas, just through feel and improvisation. And then my grandfather would come up to me and say, “That sounds great. But can you do it again?” And I would shrug in submission, ‘not exactly’. Looking back at this retrospectively, it becomes clear that if I could manufacture and tightly package the music that was happening ‘by accident’, the experience would become less musical. And if indeed I had attained a state of groove mentally while I was playing, then the music would be virtually impossible to recall. 


In this chapter of my essay, I wish to tell the story of one of America’s baseball greats. Dock Ellis was a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1968 until 1979. [12] On June 12, 1970, Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter. He had ingested the drug, LSD25. He [Ellis] wrote about the experience in his 1976 autobiography. This writing is used, as well as two other sources (High Times, August, 1987 and Lysergic World, 1993) I found through some online retrieval; (Ellis is referred to in the third-person and also gives interviews in the first-person).[13]

The pitcher woke up late one July morning thinking he and his team had a day-off. He had 3 doses of acid in the refrigerator. He ate breakfast and read the newspaper when his girlfriend returned and at noon, the two dropped the acid. It is said that Ellis put a record on the player. His girlfriend was engrossed in the newspaper.

 “Dock, it says here you’re pitching today!”

“What?” Dock replied. He took the paper from her, scanned it and read:



            Ellis (4-4) vs. Roberts (3-3).

‘Back then it costed $9.50 to fly to San Diego.’ recalls Ellis in a magazine interview printed in Lycergic World. “She got me to the airport at 3:30.” he recalls about his girlfriend. “I got there at 4:30, and the game started at 6:05pm. It was a twi-night doubleheader.”

He makes it into the game and after having someone help him find the locker, he suits up and enters onto the field. Pitching for the Padres was Dave Roberts. At the end of the first inning, baseball great Roberto Clemente, hit one “back to the box.” Dock marched up to the mound.

High Times Magazine:

His fingers tingled as he squeezed the ball. He squinted to see catcher Jerry May’s hand signals. He nodded his head and went into his windup, falling slightly off balance in the process. The ball hit the ground about two feet in front of the plate and skipped into May’s glove. May signaled for a fastball outside. Dock wound up and threw a hot one over the corner of the plate – a swinging strike! In was no ordinary pitch: The ball burst from Dock’s hand and left a blazing, comet-like tail that remained visible long after the ball was caught.
His concentration […] was superb. As long as he kept to his fastball, the comets kept burning across the plate. All he had to do was steer the ball down the multicolored path. Dock had a crazed look in his eyes and his lack of control was evident to the batters, many of whom were feeling increasingly vulnerable in the batter’s box. Dock easily retired three batters in a row [in the second inning].

Lycergic World:

“I was zeroed in on the (catcher’s) glove, but I didn’t hit the glove too much. I remember hitting a couple of batters and the bases were loaded two or three times. The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I tried to stare the hitter down and throw while I was looking at him. I chewed my gum until it turned to powder. They say I had about three to four fielding chances. I remember diving out of the way of a ball I thought was a line drive. I jumped, but the ball wasn’t hit hard and never reached me.

The Seventh Inning:

The Pirates were clinging to their 1-0 lead. Dock was staring at the scoreboard when he realized he had just pitched a hitless ball for seven innings.


The effects of the LSD25 which Dock Ellis is under in the above-mentioned anecdote have often been said to induce a ‘groovy’ mental state in the patient. This is why beginning in the mid-1960s, electric rock n’ roll music would be performed at parties where this drug was used in concert with psychedelic light shows and day-glo paint. The party-goers, under the influence of the ‘acid’ are inspired to express themselves creatively, while in the groove and most commonly: to dance. Other drugs known to have psychedelic effects, similar to LSD25 (a chemical compound which originates partially on the fungus which grows on rye) are Psilocybin which are found in the fungi that grows under cow dung and Mescalin which is found in the roots of Peyote cacti. In 1956, the British journalist, Aldous Huxley, wrote about his experiences one afternoon in the ‘50s while tripping on Mescalin: “Half an hour after swallowing the drug I became aware of a slow dance of golden lights. A little later there were sumptuous red surfaces swelling and expanding from bright nodes of energy that vibrated with a continuously changing, patterned life.” he wrote. “Space was still there; but it had lost its predominance. The mind was primarily concerned, not with measures and locations, but with being and meaning.” And again he mentions that “Interest in space is diminished and interest in time falls almost to zero.” This would mean that the mind is in a receptive mode, when it is psychedelic, to create or unlock a groove where space and time become diminished and almost indiscernable.


Early on in the progress of civilization a problem arose for engineers: connecting two spots of land separated by water. Two solutions were presented: bridges and tunnels. It is in the latter that we are interested. A tunnel is a long, narrow structure that cuts through earth or water. Like a bridge, it enables transportation to cross from point A to point B. According to the UNESCO World Heritage Center, the Qanat and Kareez of Persia are the oldest known water management systems used. The Iranian city of Gonabad still has a working network of Kareez tunnels dating back 2700 years, according to

The engineering feats of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians were improved upon by the Greeks who were “able to transforms marches, transport water through mountains, and create pedestrian tunnels trough very harsh terrains.” reads a sample from “To this day historians wonder how much workforce was involved in the construction tunnel between Naples and Pozzuoli that was created around 36 BC. This incredible structure was 4800 foot long, 25 foot wide and 30 foot high, and it even had ventilation shafts.”[14]

Other ancient tunnels are the Eupalinian aqueduct on the island of Samos built in 520 BCE by the ancient Greek engineer, Eupalinos of Megara.

A tunnel may be dug deep underground, through a surface of water, or along ground level, cutting through a solid surface, enabling us to travel through land ways otherwise closed.

You may say: ‘a groove in solid surface enabling an object to travel’ is a tunnel.

When the Industrial Revolution occurred between the middle 18th century through the 19th century, engineers attempted to solve the problems of space and time as it relates to industry. Factory machines were invented which redefined productivity for mass markets. According to Deidre McCloskey, “the onset of the Industrial Revolution is the most important event in the history of humanity since the domestication of animals and plants…”[15]

Factory machines specializing in textiles, steam power and iron making created new industry which shaped the economy. The Industrial Revolution led the way to urbanization in America and Europe. Factories sprung up all over. Now men crowded in these garages and rooms, manning loud machines with loud mechanical and robotic sounds, repetitive rhythms. This brought the epidemic of the labor class. Friedrich Engels introduced a solution through Socialism, and the Romantics maintained a protest in the name of nature vs. the machine.

Such a dualism is found in electronic music vs. live music. In contemporary art, the computer age that we are living in has redefined the world of music. Software such as Propellerhead’s Reason and Ableton Live has provided ways for the layman to compose. This is composition in the technology age, where the knowledge to play an instrument or music theory holds little sway. Electronic music is groove-oriented music, sonic tapestries manipulated by the aesthetic controls of the software user.

Electronic music began in the earlymid 20th century with composers like John Cage in America and Karlheinz Stockhausen in Germany. But that such innovations as rhythm loops would take the dominance that they did came as a surprise to all. Before MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) there was circuit bending. This involves the bending and altering of musical electronic circuits. Harmonic Oscillators or Variable Frequency Oscillators may produce sound waves known as ‘saw tooth’, ‘square wave’ and ‘sine’.[16] The use of such synthesizing techniques creates grooves in the texture of any given soundscape.

[1] On September 21, 1908 Hermann Minkowski began his talk at the 80th Assembly of German Natural Scientists and Physicians with the now famous introduction:

The views of space and time which I wish to lay before you have sprung from the soil of experimental physics, and therein lies their strength. They are radical. Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality. [1, p. 75]

Hermann Minkowski, “Space and Time” in Hendrik A. Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Hermann Minkowski, and Hermann Weyl, The Principle of Relativity: A Collection of Original Memoirs on the Special and General Theory of Relativity (Dover, New York, 1952) pp. 75-91.

[2] “The Categories”. Aristotle.  Chapter 1.6.

[3] “Vortex” Pound, Ezra. Published in 1914. Blast Magazine.


[5] PopScriptum 11. The Groove issue.

[6] “Space and Time Warps”. Hawkings, Stephen. 1999.

[7] “Does God Play Dice?”. Hawkings, Stephen. 1999.

[8] “Vortex”. Pound, Ezra.


[10] Janata, Petr; Tomic, Sean T.; Haberman, Jason M: “Sensorimotor coupling in music and the psychology of the groove.” Journal of Experimental Psychology; General, Vol 141(1), Feb 2012, 54-75.


[12] “Doc Ellis’ 1970 No Hitter”.  Original Author Unknown. Maintained and Updated by Erowid.

[13] Huxley, Aldous. “The Doors of Perception.” 1956.



[16] Snelgrove, Martin (2011). “Oscillator”McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, 10th Ed., Science Access online service. McGraw-Hill. Retrieved March 1, 2012.

About the Author
Scott Krane has been blogging for The Times of Israel since 2012. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Tablet, The Jerusalem Post and the Daily Caller, among others.
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