How do you define the undefinable?
I've been asked, 'what is groove?' before, and it's certainly a complicated question to have to answer. There was the Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, who said in regards to pornography, that he couldn't define it, but "I know it when I see it". Although music is not pornographic in nature-- Frank Zappa testified in front of Congress arguing that the labels Tipper Gore wanted to put onto albums warning parents about explicit music was a fallacy. There's no way a that a bassline or drum beat can be sexual or offensive, it was the lyrics that she was taking issue with.
How do you define something subjective, then? Dave Chappelle had a skit on his show talking about how white people dance to guitar, latinos to the piano, and black people to the drums. Dave Grohl went a step further by telling Kyle Gass (YouTube link: dave grohl how to write a pop song) that white people only dance to the lyrics. So how does what one person finds grooving sound like unlistenable trash to another person? How do you define the undefinable?
1.) You can move past subjectivity.
Let's move past saying that the music we like is the best music there is. Eric Clapton, though great on paper: a lead guitar player who sings and writes songs (everything I'm trying to do), just doesn't do it for me. I can't explain why subjectively I don't care for his playing, but objectively he's obviously great. It's like how Kurt Vonnegut said that the funniest jokes are also the most dangerous because they're also true: What does Eric Clapton have in common with a cup of coffee? They both suck without Cream.
Honing in back on the topic of groove, hip hop is another case study worth exploring. With its roots dug into 70s funk, there's no reason why I shouldn't love this extension of one of the genres that made me want to take music seriously. But I don't.
Critics called Pink Floyd the most boring rhythm section in rock, but how can one listen to the middle/instrumental section of 'Echoes' and not say that it grooves?
So what makes a groove...groove?
2.) Syncopation and anticipation
The best explanation I heard of what syncopation is, related to the non-musician, was this: imagine you're walking down the street. That steady walk has a rhythm to it. Now imagine tripping over a crack in the sidewalk. That's syncopation. To those with musical training, it means coming in on the 'ands' of beats. A little trickier is anticipation, the 16th note equivalent of syncopation. Or, coming in on the 'e's' and 'a's' of beats.
The majority of music in which one would objectively say 'this grooves' has some sort of syncopation to it, some phrasing of the melody which comes in an unexpected place. Again, objectivity vs subjectivity, let's look at the Stevie Wonder song 'I Wish'. I think we would be hard pressed to find a person who doesn't think this song grooves, but with the bassline only starting on the 'and' of 3, and only one 16th note towards the end of the figure on the 'e' of 3; it offers little in terms of syncopation. Perhaps this is one of those cases of less being more. Or, you know it when you see it (or hear it).
If we agree that the majority of 90s rock doesn't groove, then why are there syncopated figures in the Matchbox 20 song 3am? Do people dance at these types of concerts? Groove must make people want to dance.
3.) Groove does not necessarily make people dance
I'm not a dancer. Everyone else was learning how to dance, I was the one playing in the band while the people danced. What can ya do. My friends make fun of how bad my dancing is, one said I look like my feet are nailed to the ground. Another said that I look like the wacky wavy arm-flailing inflatable tubeman. And I'll get made fun of for not dancing enough at shows where I should be. You can't win with these people (my friends).
Jazz used to be dance music, now it's music you sit and listen to while wearing glasses and trying to look smart. But it's upbeat and the bassline playing quarter notes vaguely (and I stress, *vaguely*) resembles how house music has the bass drum playing the quarter note. So, people's perception has changed over time, if dancing is a litmus for what grooves.
I played in a band when I was younger where people would always dance at our shows. We booked one show at a coffee shop where the crowd just sat, and listened intently. They were quite obviously actively listening, after every song there were cheers, they were watching us play, not talking much, and complimented our sound once the set was over. So people don't necessarily dance to music with a groove, and if people dance at Matchbox 20 concerts (I cant say I've ever had the honor and privilege of attending one), then that means groove has nothing to do with people dancing.
In conclusion, we have no conclusion.
What is groove?
It is, to a certain degree, subjective.
It is the instrumental aspect of the music that moves you. If we remove the subjectivity, we can still see how perception still clouds people's thoughts: 'well, I could like this, I just don't'. On the other hand, I do think someone puts on a record by the Meters and says 'maaan, check out this GROOVE!' a lot more often than someone says that about a Goo Goo Dolls MP3 that they just downloaded.
Adam Douglass has been playing guitar for 25 years and teaching for a good 20. He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York where he is an instructor; and plays with his band doing his original music, jazz standards, or whatever other gigs might come his way. His guitar of choice is the Fender Stratocaster, though if money were no object he'd have 3 or 4 of everything. He prefers tube screamer-like overdrives and clean boosts, with touch of analog delay. Hit him up at firstname.lastname@example.org, as he is always happy to discuss interesting topics.