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Human Music

Dogs don’t dance.  I’ve been to many a bouncy dance situation where everyone is jerking and swaying, but the dogs just walk around.  They’re not alone.  Lots of animals don’t display an interest in music or dancing, and I’ve noticed most young children also don’t dance.  Only a few rare ones seem to get the beat and try to bob up and down with it.  As they mature, though, they do get it and start liking certain songs, going to dances, and sometimes playing an instrument.  This is a good thing.


I don’t want to say other animals have no music.  Maybe I can’t hear the nuance and beat that they do.  Frogs and crickets certainly make a mesmerizing multi-rhythmic set of sounds.  I’ve listened to the badly-named mockingbird go on for hours in an endlessly varied set of songs as well – so pleasing and beautiful to my human ears!  Curiously, the apes we humans are closest to also don’t dance or appear to make music together.  However, parrots definitely dance.  Not only will they mimic our sounds and talk in an array of voices, they get the beat.  Check out You Tube to see how Snowball the parrot obviously gets the beat big-time.  He sways, jumps, and jives, radically going from side to side.  When the song or beat changes, he does too, grooving in time to the new music.


Some theorize that parrots, dolphins, and humans all have a part of our brain that is the seat of both music and language.  If language is part of what makes us uniquely and marvelously human, could music be crucial too?


Welcome to the third in my trilogy.  We’ve somewhat explored sex and drugs.  Now let’s consider rock, or jazz, or pop, or opera, or classical, or tribal.  What is it about a set of sounds that moves us so?  We are touched inwardly.  We move outwardly.  Meaning and pleasure are merged.  I go to sleep with a song in my mind only to wake with it still there.  Why?  What’s the purpose?  What can we do with it?


My influences started in the womb, hearing and feeling my mother’s heart beat and rhythmic breathing.  I don’t remember that or her and my earliest communications, but I do remember family parties where we’d all sing “Side by Side,” or other easy, fun songs.  Dad would play the piano and Uncle Paul would strum jazz guitar.  Mom was good on the ukulele.  Dad had wanted to be a concert pianist, but when three fingers on his right had got squished off in a huge press in a factory in Detroit, he had to settle for octaves rather than complete chords.  Even so, he liked the Romantics, and played them with passion.


Though I had heard Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and 50’s pop, I remember being stirred early on by the sound of Nat King Cole’s voice.  He was smooth, resonate.  But when Ray Charles hit the radio, I knew there was something there I wanted.  The ache, the beat, the harmonies all grabbed me deep.  It was about then that Elvis also came on the scene.  So much was made of him as a Big Star that we forget what a great voice he had, back when a clear lyric was the point of music.  Then James Brown pulled me into some really funky rhythms, and to this day, racist though it may sound, I usually like black music better than most white music.  The Beatles and Pink Floyd seemed to open up a whole new way of music.


Rock in those days was not only urgent and stirring, it conveyed meaning.  The lyrics actually said something about how to live and what the war was doing.  Dylan’s “Masters of War” and Steppenwolf’s “Monster” conveyed honest disgust with the meat-grinder our country was becoming.  Paul Simon’s “Old Friends” pointed us beyond our generation and our angst.  The song-writers were our philosophers.  The so-called 60’s music, which really flowered in the early 70’s, was meaningful and moving.


I started plunking on our home piano, trying to make sense of sheet music and music structure.  Note by note, I’d figure it out, get it in my hands, and then enjoy.  Later, and lately, I try to get my guitar to wail and whine and chop like Jimi did and my favorite living musician, local Jeff Pevar, does.  I tried sax for a while and played a couple of gigs way back when, knowing part of a scale.


The most enjoyable music creation for me was my recent involvement in a small group of people to gather weekly to engage in spontaneous vocal improvisation.  We had one rule: “No rules.”  We had no leader, no plan, no song.  We’d just listen, find some sounds, explore them, let them evolve, let rhythms emerge and change, and we’d often be surprised at the astonishing “songs” we’d create.  No matter how badly we might think we were at singing, there was latitude to try anyway, and to try other ranges and sounds from our own voices.  Some songs were horrible.  We’d be caught in cacophony, an annoying clash of noise.  But if we kept with it, sometimes something lovely would appear out of the mix, especially when members would listen to others as much as themselves, finding some jam, some riff, some evolving phrase to sing with, participate in, follow, and lead.  Doing this was extremely endorphic.  We’d end, erupting in laughter, often going off into word games, jokes, or other ventures born of minds afire with music.  We called ourselves The Joymongers.


Harmony theory fascinates me.  Why do some sounds wrench while others elevate?  I learned that long ago Pythagoras found the natural notes of a scale generated by a vibrating string.  Interestingly, his seven note scale wasn’t the exact same as what we now use; it was better.  Old instruments were set to a key that could play that just scale in that key only.  Other keys didn’t work, for the spacing between the notes was not equal.  Bach tweaked them to be equally spaced, mathematically even, so that instruments could play in any key and with each other.  What we hear is then bent off from the natural scale.  The just scale has the real 3 in between the minor and major versions, and the real 7 is located between its dominate and major versions.  What we hear is a bit more mechanical than natural.  But fretless instruments like the violin and voice can hit those sweet notes that resonate in us just right.


Even so, I set out to understand modern harmony theory.  Gradually I collected two fat books of sheet music for the piano, one popular and show tunes, one simplified arrangements of the classics.  I often soothe myself by playing some simple Satie, Mozart, Chopin, Shostakovich, Jobim or others, and I try to jam with cheat sheets based on Basie, Herzog, Porter, Gershwin, Van Heusen, Brubeck, etc.  I am fascinated why, and befuddled why, certain chords make me ache or sigh, why some sounds are dull or wrong, while others make me come alive.


What is music?  Why do some sounds touch and inspire us?  Why do we move to really good beats?  What is the origin and function of music for humans?


Is it merely coincidence that all human cultures generate music?  Anthropologists speculate as to when humans started using tools, controlling fire, and generating written language.  How old is music?  Does it play a role in our survival, evolution, and community?  Bone flutes have been found from 40,000 years ago.  Rhythm, chanting, singing, and dancing bring many a community together.  Long before we carved out flutes or made harps we must have clapped and slapped to the beat, and a melodious voice may have been not just fun to sing or hear, but a factor in attracting a mate, hence steering selection and evolution.


Psycho-biologist Colwyn Trevarthen documents a five month old blind baby raising her arm to “conduct” her mother’s familiar song a bit before the beat.  He claims, “Our brains possess a storytelling sense that is an essential component of musicality from the beginning.” (Science News, Aug. 14, 2010)  They even cry in musical patters heard while in the womb.  Then they welcome the “goo-goo’s and ga-ga’s” we adults use with them as the further foundation of both language and music.  Stephen Malloch, of the University of Western Sidney, calls this early exchange “communicative musicality.”  Probing mom-baby verbal exchanges, he finds inherent pulse, quality, and narrative.  In twenty five seconds, patterns of introduction, development, climax, and resolution can be discerned.  Swedish researchers Eckerdal and Merker, a physician and a neuro-scientist, trace the development of sing-songy coordination of hands and voice in such early rituals as “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” suggesting these help align the babes in later social rituals.


Musical rituals in society are intricate and extensive.  They include: bonding, relaxation, creative expression, trance, learning, revolt, worship, persuasion, mourning, work, myth, entertainment, expressions of love, and more.  Why is this inessential activity, found across human cultures, so universal?


Harvard physicist Leonid Perlovsky speculates early hand gestures and sounds conveyed emotion, but the thinking, language-laden mind created a disconnect from those emotions.  Language then sets the stage for music to reconnect to those emotions.  Aniruddh Patel, of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, sees music as a human invention, an adaptation of neural circuitry serving other functions, much like our ability to make fire.  Like fire’s benefits to us, music helps us remember information and conduct community cohesive rituals.  It helps us adapt and function, so we use it.  But I suspect music is more essentially human than mere tool.


Consider what happens to babies when the sing-song interchanges with their mothers don’t go well.  Mothers with borderline personality disorder (who fear abandonment, feel empty, and act impulsively) tend to form intense, but unstable relationships with their infants.  They feel so alienated and alone that their baby’s attempt to pull them into melodic exchanges is like “trying to grab fistfuls of water.”  Such mothers (and those with obsessive-compulsive or paranoid personality disorders) lack the rhythmic flow babies seek, and instead use an awkward monotone the babies don’t get.  Such babies withdraw, vocalize only a little, and easily get upset.  Depressed mothers offer more, but in an unexpressive voice devoid of timing.  Their infants interact hesitantly, mimicking the flat delivery.  Simple rhymes and lullabies do more wonders than we knew.


Same for us humans at the other end of life.  Alzheimer’s patients remember better when the information is sung.  Evocative music helps them recall lost emotions and memories.  People with Parkinson’s misjudge time and have trouble coordinating walking and talking.  Music helps their difficulty by providing a sense of organized time and tempo.   Stroke victims who listen to music have better recall and less sadness and confusion, plus they walk better to a tempo.  Autistic people, who have trouble knowing how others feel, respond well to emotions in songs.  It calms those with anxiety disorders and boosts pleasure for depressives.


Music touches our whole brain our whole life.  Istvan Molnar-Szajacs, neuro-scientist at UCLA, says our brain seems on fire when listening to music.  He explains brain-imaging studies show listening to music “lights up, or activates, more of the brain than any other stimulus we know.”   Emotion, memory, motor control, timing, and language areas are all lit up by a good song.  The primitive cerebellum keeps track of the beat.  The motor cortex gets our foot tapping.  The auditory cortex makes a mental map of the tones.  The hippocampus rouses up memory and meaning.  The amygdala responds differently to major and minor chords and is soothed by skillful repetition.  The prefrontals keep things orderly but then step aside to let improvisation flow.  The limbic system (our emotional center) is affected greatly, firing up our pleasure centers to squirt out dopamine much like eating chocolate or having sex do.  Aha!  There’s our trilogy again.


Children trained in music hear words better in noisy situations.  Those unsatisfied with hanging chords are more sensitive to sentence syntax too.  Listening to music is good, but playing or singing it is better.  It improves memory, motor skills, and motor control.  Not reading or doing music can get you by, but we do much better all around by practicing both.  We shouldn’t be so quick to trash music programs in schools.  We’re built of music and thrive with it.  Music is more integral to who we are and how we can be than we ever knew.


Imagine what the world of sound would be like if you were deaf.  When one function is lacking, our brain nicely compensates by building extra neurons in needed areas.  Consider poor Beethoven, jilted by a hoped-for lover and going deaf besides.  Talk about emotion in music!  His anguish wrenches out aching minor flat ninths and more in the “Moonlight Sonata.”  Or think how much more tuned into your hearing you would be if you were blind.  How much more of the crucial inflection and pure sound of people’s voices would you be able to hear?  Which brings us back to Ray Charles.  He, soulful, gave soul to us.  Musical soulfulness is a part of our wonderful human wholeness.


In closing, there is one aspect to modern music that leaves us lacking.  More and more, people listen to recorded music in individualized formats.  It’s handy to have our iPod plugged into our ears, but not very communal.  Here-to-fore, to have music one had to be present to play it, or at least be near those playing it.  For most of human history, music is what we did together.  We sing hymns in church though, though.  I remember Roland Matthis at the Red Hill Universalist Church outside Clinton, North Carolina.  At six foot three he stood in the back pew and loudly sang out, badly.  I loved it.  Everyone who heard him could think, “Well, if he can sing this hymn, so can I.”  It isn’t the skill of the singing congregation that thrills me; it’s the sincerity of the prayer and the willingness to join in the singing that makes it work.  Singing lights up our whole brain, connects us to each other, and taps into an ancient and essential aspect of our being wholly human.  Our precious human lives are formed, touched, and refreshed by hearing and making music.


Reverend Brad Carrier

For the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Grants Pass

Grants Pass, Oregon

© December 12, 2010

Byron has been using his writing and public speaking to engage, challenge and inspire audiences for over 40 years. Reverend Carrier's mission is to rescue and revive our earthly Eden, including our human worth and potential. If you enjoy his work, consider supporting him with Patreon.

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