What is it about this clip that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up? What is it about a song with a great beat that makes you want to tap your foot? Daniel Levitin thinks it’s all about the falling in and the breaking out of the beat. He calls that elusive element ‘the groove’ citing songs like Bruce Springsteen’s I’m on Fire and Steve Wonder’s Superstition as good examples. He posits that human enjoyment of music is all about the building up breaking down of those expectations. In his book This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession Levitin talks about the appeal of music from a biological perspective. He says, “rhythmic sequences optimally excite re-current neural networks in mammalian brains” and that various properties like pitch, tone and rhythm work with our auditory system that is in itself a product of the physical world and “the inherent nature of vibrating objects.” Scientists think that it might be our mirror neurons that are the responsible for the fact that we are moved emotionally and physically by music. They suspect that our “mirror neurons are firing when we see or hear musicians perform, as our brain tries to figure out how those sounds are being created, in preparation for being able to mirror or echo them back” and no doubt this neuron’s involvement in our ability to empathise plays a part. It’s been said that mirror neurons are responsible for the way we learn to speak and it’s even been suggested that reading books can activate these neurons to replicate, in our brains, the feelings of the characters in the books we read. However, our understanding of these neurons is limited, as pointed out in WIRED.com. Reducing our love of music and inexplicable attraction to rhythm to purely scientific reasoning is an unsatisfying answer. Sure, we all love the participation of a bit of call and response, and it’s been suggested that this is how human music originated, but it’s not the only element in music that elicits action, pleasure and sympathy.
Whether the beat is tapped out on the toms or with a click of a finger, humans have been utilising rhythm as far back as we can remember, and beyond. Beats have been used is many ways from sexual selection to war. Drums can be used to organise troops and yet also to rouse them for battle, from marching battalions and Native American Indian pow-wows to Highland side-drummers. Drums were thought to have entered Europe and the west during the Crusades when their stirring qualities had been witnessed in the far east.
The Bayaka tribe don’t have instruments or notation but make their rhythms with their hands on the waters of the Amazon and with other found objects that could be anything from an empty plastic bottle to a tin lid. The Bayaka pygmies use music as way to express, share and reflect on the happenings of their daily lives. And according to Lavinia Currier, who made the film Oka!, which is a fictional account of Louis Sarno’s story now made into a documentary called A Song from the Forest – the Bayaka “start music when they’re two years old and the word eboka(ph) is the same for music and dance, so they don’t distinguish between dancing and singing.”
David Rothenberg doesn’t think music is merely an evolutionary by-product or an expression with purely practical purposes. Professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rothenberg writes books about the origins and reasons for music amongst humans and animals. He questions the values and very aesthetics of music and the arts in his book Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution and has famously said “Life is far more interesting than it needs to be, because the forces that guide it are not merely practical.” We can’t know what forces guide our love for music and the reason we react to it the way we do. But we do know that one of the reasons we love music is the groove. Levitin describes it as the way a drummer “changes the tempo slightly according to aesthetic and emotional nuances of the music” or how a track ‘breathes’. It’s precisely the flaws in the beat, the humanity in the rhythm that attracts us to the ebb and flow of tone, pitch and rhythm. Perhaps music is the sonic reflection of ourselves and the rhythms of our bodies; the beating of our heart, the frequency of our voice, an ultimately an act of sensorial affirmation.