Moby and a Neuroscientist Debate: What Is the Groove?

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Since the glorious age of the beatniks, the term "the groove" has been used to describe a felicitous state of mind in which a musician can do no wrong. But what does it mean to actually be "in the groove"? Last night, this goatee-scratcher of a question was the subject of "The Groove Factor," a meandering discussion between UC Davis neuroscientist Dr. Petr Janata and Moby, held in the Rubin Museum of Art's basement theater. There were colorful slides of brain scans, flow charts of activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, and much awkward back-and-forth between the two men, who had met each other 20 minutes before going on stage and clearly had little idea what to do with one another. "Again, I'm not a neuroscientist, I'm a drunk who dropped out of college freshman year," Moby told the audience more than once.

After the talk we pulled aside Dr. Janata, a rumpled professorial type with Gene Wilder hair who has studied how the brain processes music for 18 years. How does the groove differ from, say, the zone? "Well, I think they're either one and the same or very closely related," he said. "Personally I think that in terms of the neural circuitry of what's happening, the two phenomena are very much the same. Although it needs to be said for the record that we haven't cleanly isolated either one, so we don't have a neuroimaging corollary where we can say this is the brain in the groove, and in the zone."

"Ninety percent of what he said in his presentation, I had no idea what he was talking about," Moby confessed in a car heading downtown. He guessed that he was invited to participate because of fundraising work he does for the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function in the Bronx. "You know, sometimes you go on a date and everything goes perfectly and everything flows, and sometimes you go on a date and everything is stilted and awkward. So as a musician it's the same thing." So this evening had not been an example of the groove, it seemed. He mulled it over. "Every time someone asks that, I think of the Madonna song, you know, 'Get into the Groove'?" Moby said. "Um, groove is not a word I use too often." —Andrew Goldstein