Why do mosh pits spin counterclockwise?

It’s time again to bring hard science to bear on another pressing issue – to find out why “circle pits” at rock ‘n’ roll shows spin counter-clockwise.

The rotational mosh phenomenon has been confirmed by a number of reliable sources – and no, pits don’t spin clockwise in the Southern hemisphere, like typhoons. The Coriolis Force is too weak to affect the motion of human bodies. This has also been confirmed by first-hand accounts of punk rock shows in Australia. The pits spin the same direction as here.

Dave Bacon, career punk bassist and charter member of SNFU, has observed a lot of mosh pits in his day, “From the massive and massively violent ones at Fender’s Ballroom in Long Beach, where any number of gangs (LMP, LADS, Nazi Skins, etc.) could be squaring off for battle or gang attacking a single guy outside the pit, to old Spartan’s shows where it was one for all and all for one and nobody got hurt if anyone else could possibly help it.”

(This was in fact the case at SNFU’s show at the Union Hall in Edmonton last month. A young woman decided to crowd surf above the throng of mainly male slam dancers, fell down into a pit of stomping boots and was immediately rescued by a guy with a green Mohawk. She didn’t do it again.)

“Last year at a festival in Latvia we had multiple pits going during our show – a big one at the stage, a not as big of one at the back of the ‘barn’ we played in, and a smaller one off to the side that might have been a fight or two,” says Bacon. “Anyway, the two main ones – both counterclockwise.”

Dave Bacon

Dave Bacon has seen a lot of mosh pits

It’s not just mosh pits that spin so predictably: Consider other forms of rotational dancing, whirling dervishes, or a man lost in the desert, jogging tracks, NASCAR races – widdershins almost every time.

Some people say it’s because the Earth itself rotates counterclockwise. That’s a good point, but it’s wrong. If you’re looking South, the globe spins clockwise. “North” is a human invention.

There should be no one better to talk to about mosh pits than Gabrielle “Gabby” Riches, the Edmonton-born host of the alt-rock show Mind Compression on CJSR who wrote her U of A Master’s thesis in music on mosh pits. She is currently finishing her Ph.D on the same topic at Leed’s University in England. She’s going to be a Doctor of Mosh.

From origins from the “pogo” dance that emerged with punk in the 1970s, and probably from even before that, she says moshing has evolved into many forms. The most violent variety is called “deathcore moshing,” practiced mainly by young males who want to be seen as cool, Riches says. Such pits may include the “wall of death,” where two groups at opposite ends of a suitable space run into each other at full speed. Stage-diving is seen at “grindcore, death metal and thrash metal gigs.” Riches has witnessed “cultural clashes” that occur at metal shows resulting from different forms of mosh going at the same time. Some get dangerous, as Bacon pointed out. When the lines between classic and alternative rock get blurry, for instance, sometimes you get the “rock ‘n’ roll burros” (boyfriends with girlfriends perched on their shoulders) being taken out by crowd-surfers. Culture clash.

Crowd-surfing is a phenomenon all its own. It’s common in larger venues with harder rock bands where the fans are packed so tightly together in a general admission area that there’s no room to spin. Instead they jump, and like spawning salmon, pop up and out to ride the sea of groping hands. Security men are usually on hand to fish the surfers out safely and send them past the barricades to do it all again. Some bands have banned moshing entirely, such as Pearl Jam, in the wake of the tragedy in Denmark in 2000 where nine people lost their lives in the band’s mosh pit.

The Corlious Force is too weak to affect the motion of human bodies

The Coriolis Force is too weak to affect the motion of human bodies

Bloody noses and other injuries are common with “slam-dancing” seen at punk shows – pushing, punching, shoving and shoulder-checking, mostly by men, some of it good natured, some of it not. Usually slam dancing looks like random nuclei colliding in an atomic explosion. But if there are enough people and the music’s tempo is fast and exciting enough, the throng will start to spin – and there’s your circle pit.

“I’ve never taken into account the ways in which circle pits rotate, but it is odd that they always move counter-clockwise,” says Riches. “I have seen quite a few circle pits switch directions in mid-rotation with the band’s guidance, and I’ve also seen ones that go clockwise, but these are rare.”

One explanation is that most people are right-handed; the good foot goes further, hence counter-clockwise rotation. The only way to test this theory would be to hold a punk rock show and only invite left-handed fans without telling them why they were there – and see what happens.

Riches says there may be something to the right-footed preference. “I also wonder if it’s influenced by rhythm, feeling secure on a particular side of the circle pit, the venue, etc,” she says. “Unfortunately I wouldn’t be any substantial help in this discussion because my research is focused more on the sensuous, embodied dimensions of moshpit practices for female metal fans. And although many of the women have participated in circle pits, none of them have mentioned direction and rotation.”

So Dr. Mosh isn’t much help after all.

Dave Bacon was one of the only punk rockers approached for this story who bothered to respond. Most either don’t notice, don’t think it’s a serious question, or don’t care.

“Fuck off,” responded one left-handed drummer.

Others thought the time could better be spent on something more worthwhile. “Is this what music journalism has sunk to?!” said another musician, or words to that effect

Edmonton musician Lyle Bell, aka Whitey Houston, was more forthcoming. He remembers from his moshing days, “Pits would occasionally stop in between songs and reverse direction for a while but I think you are correct that they almost always go counter-clockwise! I’ve actually never thought about it.”

Bell also happens to be left-handed. He says he’s never felt as it something was “off” while participating in counter-clockwise circle pits. No help there, either.

There are other theories. Bacon says he heard that it has something to do with murmuration, the mass synchronized movements in flocks of birds. How do they all know which way to fly at the same time? Former Edmonton heavy metal singer Kelly Simpson (from a band called “the loved one”), suggests looking at “the weird rituals involved in square dancing, secret midnight dances. Is the pit a ritual holdover?” There’s also a scene in Midnight Express where the main character Billy Hayes is put into the mental ward of the Turkish prison, and joins a group of inmates as they shuffle in a mindless circle around a pillar – clockwise! At one point, Billy decides to walk the other way, causing a panic. The other prisoners shout, “You must walk rightwards! Left is bad luck! You are walking the wrong way! A good Turk always walks to the right. Left is Communist. Right is good! You must walk to the right!” The take-away: You have be crazy to circle clockwise.

Back to Bacon, who actually gave this question some thought: “The one thing I will say about pit circles is that they are fucking stupid. Yeah, it’s great to see people getting into the music and having fun, but it’s a very exclusionary process because it creates this big chasm between the band and most of the crowd. We notice it from the stage because we can see people singing along and getting into it at the back. That could be a group of two-thirds of the people, then a small group pressed against the stage and a smaller group running a circle that seems to have no fucking purpose. Then again, people know this happens, and they show up and have a good time anyway. Maybe the counter-clockwise nature of the pit takes the energy from the stage and propels it further back.”

Unless the stage is facing South. Or maybe it’s magnetism.

More study (and a research grant) is needed.