Tag Archives: Civilization

The Rhythm of Survival

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Of all the elements of music, rhythm and tempo are the most fundamental and most attractive to the human senses. Without thinking, we synchronize body movements to beats inferred from sound patterns, and know precisely when to begin, end, speed up or slow down with the music. Regular isochronous pulses effect a variety of physical responses, from toe tapping and hand clapping to marching and dancing. Beat-based rhythm processing, or beat induction, is a cognitive skill we do not share with other primates (and is perhaps only shared with certain  parrots). It is the basis of our ability to create and appreciate music, and is among the instincts that make us human.

The urge to synchronize to external rhythm is present from the first stages of human development. A recent study of 120 small children, aged five months to two years, confirms what has long been assumed: we are born with a predisposition to move to musical rhythm. According to University of York psychologist Marcel Zentner, who worked on the study, “it is the beat rather than other features of the music, such as the melody, that produces the response in infants.”

Biomusicological reactions occur naturally in small children; they are not learned or imitative behaviors. During the experiment, each child sat on a parent’s lap. The parent was instructed to stay still and was given headphones to block out sound. The child, who was fully exposed to the music, freely waved her arms, hands, legs and feet, and swayed her head and torso from side to side. Intriguingly, too, the child responded to the music with greater consistency and enthusiasm than when she was addressed by her parent’s voice.

While the study records an innate proclivity for rhythmic incitement, researchers are left to speculate why this tendency evolved. One possibility comes from evolutionary musicologist Joseph Jordania. In his book, Why Do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution (2011), Jordania proposes that early human survival was aided by attaining a collective state known as the “battle trance.” Our ancestors were too slow, weak and timid to face predators or enemies on their own. They needed to band together, and would do so through ceremonial drumming and dancing. After several hours of ritual performance, participants entered an altered state where they did not know fear, were immune to pain, acted as a single unit and were ready to sacrifice their lives for the community. Repetitive beats and movements brought them to entrainment, wherein self-awareness dissipated into unified thought and collective action.

If Jordania’s adroit analysis is correct (either in whole or in part), then the spontaneity with which we react to rhythm can be traced to natural selection. Groups best adept at orchestrating rhythmic rituals had the best chances of survival in a harsh and dangerous world. This impulse eventually became ingrained in our species. Though our existence no longer depends on it, we intuitively move to the beat from cradle to grave.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Eternal Song

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

An issue of the Animal Man comic book published in 1990 includes a surreal sequence of panels showing a group of second-rate superheroes in an unusual state of self-reflection. On the brink of being discontinued, these now-irrelevant heroes descend into panicThe story’s enigmatic and sometimes-psychedelic writer, Grant Morrison, depicts the anxiety as these characters become aware that their storylines are in peril. One of them shouts forlornly, “If they write me out man, I ain’t gonna be seen again!” A more introspective figure consoles the crowd of hapless crusaders: “We can all still be seen. Our lives are replayed every time someone reads us. We can never die. We outlive our creators.”

The notion of eternality through revisitation resembles the “eternal return,” a theory popularized by religious historian Mircea Eliade. Ritual practices, explained Eliade, return participants to the mythic time in which the events commemorated purportedly took place. A ceremony marking the creation of the world or defeat of an existential enemy, for instance, brings a congregation into that extraordinary moment. In more than just a symbolic sense, each ritual repetition relives the sacred past. Like soon-to-be canceled heroes who achieve immortality on the re-read comic book page, periodic rituals enable myths to outlive the civilizations that produced them. They procure an eternal life transcending the constraints of linear time.

It is debated whether this cyclical idea of time should be viewed literally or as an inflated conception of nostalgia. Bernard Lewis, for one, has warned us of the human tendency to creatively remember, recover and reinvent our cultural heritages. Whatever the case, there is a powerful “as if” in play during ritual repetition, perhaps best articulated in the Passover seder when Jews of every era proclaim, “We were slaves in the land of Egypt.”

This phenomenon occurs as well in (non-improvised) music, especially when replayed on recordings or replicated with reasonable precision in live performances. Songs often transport us to where we first heard them or to a phase of life when they held an important place. Old feelings, old relationships, old situations are resurrected and made present through sound. As long as we continue to hear those songs—and each time we do—that bygone period is restored to vibrant immediacy.

Time-tested music also serves as an intergenerational pathway, promoting a real or imagined sense of continuity between past and present. Songs known (or thought) to be deeply woven into the societal fabric bring us face to face with long-dead ancestors and with a world we did not inhabit but feel viscerally connected to.

This is not the extent of how music connects us to eternal time. Further reflection would yield further indications of this effect. And it bears reiterating that these musical sensations are not experienced simply as emotional memories, but as the past made present once more. On a practical level, this explains the regularity with which recurring repertoires are affixed to communal rituals, both religious and secular. Such music helps tie participants to the activity itself and to the flow of history in which similar activities have already occurred and will occur again. Succinctly put, eternal myths are made eternal in part through eternal tones.

Although this discussion of return implies endlessness, it is not a static process. As we have learned from countless time travel tales of popular fiction, inserting ourselves into events that have already taken place invariably introduces new elements and causes new variations, subtle and not-so-subtle. So it is with time relived on the pages of comic books, retold in rituals and contained in repeated songs. Each of us is a constantly changing accumulation of thoughts, feelings and experiences, and every time we return to the familiar—the eternal—we approach it from a different vantage point.

Far from discrediting the notion of timelessness, the changes precipitated when our current selves encounter the perpetual past can be understood as the dynamic anatomy of eternity. Without this potential for freshness, the eternal return would hardly be longed for.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

A Musical Species

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The term ethnomusicology is attributed to Dutch scholar Jaap Kunst, who used it in the subtitle of his 1950 book Musicologica: A Study of the Nature of Ethnomusicology, Its Problems, Methods, and Representative Personalities. Since that time, ethnomusicology has developed into a rich and multi-layered academic field. Viewing music as a complex social phenomenon, scholars of the discipline share an interest in worldwide music-cultures, a penchant for fieldwork and a curiosity about what music means to its performers and audiences. These interests depart from the subjects and trajectories of conventional musicology, which concerns itself with the history and literature of Western art music. For ethnomusicologists, no society or musical style is off limits for investigation, which might integrate tools from folklore, performance studies, cultural anthropology, gender studies and other areas of the humanities and social sciences. Most critical is that music is appreciated both for what it is and for what it does.

Although this holistic approach is a newcomer to scholarship, it is not outside of our everyday experience. Societies throughout the world are fluent in music’s many purposes. In all periods and places, extra-musical meanings and functions have contributed more to the survival of musical activities than the sounds themselves. “Music as entertainment” is a late and relatively rare occurrence in human history. Music usually serves other objectives and events, whether educational, ceremonial, vocational, recreational or something else. And its role in shaping, preserving and demarcating personal and collective identity can scarcely be overstated.

Because the integration of music into assorted pursuits is seamless and second nature, we are not always cognizant of its crucialness. That is what makes ethnomusicological research so enlightening. However, we do find scattered acknowledgement of music’s cultural import in pre-modern literature. An example is the first reference to music in the Hebrew Bible, which comes in a compressed passage in Genesis listing the descendants of Cain and the growth of human civilization (Gen. 4:17-22).

As in many ancient cultures, the Israelites linked the invention of music with a single personage. His name is Jubal, “the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” (v. 21). This short verse is the only place Jubal appears in the biblical text; we have no other accounts of his personality or the music that he made. It is therefore likely that Jubal is a survival from a longer saga about the birth of civilization, which was probably the basis for the verses in Genesis.

Jubal’s significance can be garnered from the context in which he is found. In the same passage, we read that his brother, Jabal, was the first to raise cattle (v. 20), and his half-brother, Tubal-cain, “forged all implements of copper and iron” (v. 22). Mention of music’s invention alongside the origins of cattle raising and tool forging shows an early recognition of the vital place of music in society. The Bible seems to intimate that food production, manufacturing and music-making are the three undertakings upon which humanity depends.

This is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Human beings are a musical species. With rare exceptions, we all react to musical stimuli and integrate them into sundry facets of our lives. The musically inclined and disinclined benefit from music in essentially identical and equal ways; absence of individual skill does not correspond to lack of capacity. Music plays an unparalleled role in the conveyance of information, retention of memories, coordination of labor, assertion of affiliation and so on. In this sense, it is as vital to civilization as anything else. The message of the Jubal legend is valid: life without music would be sorely depleted, if not downright unfathomable.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.