Tag Archives: Dance

Concentrated Feelings

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In one of his famous Harvard lectures, Aaron Copland drew a distinction between the “gifted” (trained and literate) listener and the average auditor. While the expert is busy classifying sounds, determining styles, noting key and tempo changes, evaluating techniques and critiquing the performers, the novice receives the music with less discerning ears and is freely moved in this direction or that. Yet, despite divergences in background and approach, both species of listeners are initially drawn in by music’s emotional force. To quote Copland, music involves everyone on this “primal and almost brutish level.”

Of course, the type and intensity of emotional processing varies depending on one’s level of interest and education. Listeners might detect a general feeling, like joyfulness, or more nuanced shades, like whimsical joy, hesitant joy or effervescent joy. But the fact that emotions are triggered is what unites us all. As Copland put it, “That is fundamentally the way we all hear music—gifted and ungifted alike—and all the analytical, historical textual material on or about music heard, interesting though it may be, cannot—and I venture to say should not—alter that fundamental relationship.”

Still, the question remains: Why are we enticed by musically expressed emotions? We clearly gain something from the experience, but what? One answer comes from Jeremy S. Begbie, a systematic theologian who specializes in the interface of theology and the arts. Despite the relative narrowness of his field, Begbie’s comments apply to music across contexts and genres. And though his theory is but one of several non-mutually exclusive explanations—all of which are provisional—it goes a long way to elucidate our musical affinity.

Begbie contends that emotions sensed in music are less convoluted than those that arise in actual life. At any moment, we might be consumed by a surge of unfiltered emotions. More often than not, these sensations are tangled, transient and confused. Whether they are positive, negative or a mixture of the two, they give us little of the certainty we crave and an abundance of the messiness we don’t.

Herein lies the value of musical expression. Begbie posits that music offers a condensed and concentrated emotional experience. Whereas feelings excited in a given day tend to be unfocused and cluttered, musical passages provide clarity. This is accomplished through three interacting qualities: purity, or the absence of extraneous or distracting sounds; compression, or the focusing of attention on a single activity; and specification, or the elimination of alternative sensations. Begbie likens these three elements to the movements of a dancer, whose gestures are pared down (purity), focused (compressed) and typically unambiguous (specified).

According to some theorists, such bodily behavior is organically embedded and subconsciously perceived in musical phrases. Melodic shapes, appoggiaturas, suspensions, ascending and descending lines, harmonic tensions and resolutions, and other devices represent stereotyped physical movements that correspond to emotional states. The main difference being that musical tools concentrate emotions in a cleaner—and thus more satisfying—way than those experienced in real life.

Critics might object that concentrated emotions are not universally present in music, or that some pieces display waverings and complexities that leave listeners unsettled. A counter-argument would be that emotionally vague music usually lacks wide appeal, and therefore supports rather than challenges the concentration theory. Moreover, Begbie concedes that his analysis is open to revision and does not pretend that it is the only possibility. In any case, the effect is apparent enough to warrant our consideration.

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

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.