Music Sounds Better With You: Why We’re Hardwired to Groove
“Humans have been partying together with the aid of music since the dawn of man. Here’s why your recent rave obsession is nothing new.”
It is, to me, ceaselessly perplexing that a species, some-six billion strong, would occupy themselves, generation upon generation, in the random variations of tonal patterns. There are twelve core tones in the human musical lexicon and from this spectrum, which exist as little more than vibrating atmosphere, is every song you have ever heard. It brings rise to the question, “If only twelve notes exist, how can anything original still be created?”
Your local Bodhisattva would tell you that if something is to exist, then it only exists because of everything that came before. Nothing is truly original, yet the distinctions that define art are curated by the soul. And by soul, I mean what we feel: The culmination of life’s experiences and emotions, draped over staff paper lines, and, in our new world, MIDI data.
Music is undoubtedly a universal phenomenon. Some even consider it a universal language. In the movie Throw Down your Heart, master composer and banjo legend Bela Fleck retraces the African roots of his instrument. Throughout the movie, Bela jams with dozens of African bands, dancers, and folk musicians of drastically different cultures and societies. And for the most part, he can’t understand a word they’re saying.
In one instance, Bela finds himself attempting to converse with a famous Malian “ngoni” player named Huyate. Being that a translator is not present, conversing proves troublesome.
“We are equals then,” quotes Bela. “We’ll let the music do the talking.” Then, with smiles draped from corner to corner, they start shredding like the badasses that they are. It’s amazing what you can say without words – and it’s a skill not simply reserved for the musical elite.
Bela Fleck jamming with a whole village. There are mad polyrhythms for you techno fans out there. For the referenced clip, skip to 1:08 in the actual movie (Netflix).
Any normal functioning human comes with a brain sensitive to music. Most of us can all tap our feet and rock our heads to the beat. We all get that signature tingle in our spine. You see, this raving business we’re all about, well, it’s nothing new. We’ve been gathering around music; to party, dance, and sing with our mates since humans started being humans. Go back 10,000 years, and you’ll be sure to find a society of cavemen beating on drums and dancing around a fire. We’ll get to more on that later, but first ask yourself, “Why do you (and other humans) love music so much?”
It was a question the ultra-cerebral alien overlords in Authur C. Clark’s sci-fi classic, Childhood’s End, tried to answer. In one instance, their curiosity of music draws them to a concert where they politely watch a symphonic performance. They even go as far as complementing the conductor on his “…great ingenuity” while finding the performance, for the most part, completely nonsensical. The overlords did not, in all of their cognitive prowess, have the mental capacity to vibe with the music as we humans so naturally do. Our brains are built to like music and theirs were not.
Do this. Put on your favorite dance track ever. The one with that epic build. The one with the massive drop. The one with that solid tech bounce. Be mindful of your body and how it reacts. Be aware of foot tapping and head bobbing, even facial expressions and the all-too-familiar tingling of the spine. Also, be mindful of your psychological reaction, or, simply put, how do you feel inside while listening?
I, for one, used to play in a metal band.I can tell you the feeling associated with a heavy break down, the part of the song that makes you rage so hard you could head-butt your grandma in the ovaries, is the same feeling I get freaking out to a Figure set.
Good music makes you feel. Yes, even dubstep. Before there were finger light shows at raves, bitches used to faint to Elvis and Sinatra. Scientists have uncovered why our brains produce these reactions, but I’m not going to write a bunch of armchair neurological BS because, at least coming from me, it would be just that: BS. But I can assure you, your brain is lighting up across both hemispheres when you listen to music, affecting both your mind and body.
So, music is a universal phenomenon; one that not only makes our brains happy, but also our bodies. You get it. Let me raise the question once again:
Why do we like music so much?
First of all, every thing humans do is generally a derivative of some innate, mental mechanism which facilitates our survival as a species. The mind is like a tool shed, and each tool has its own purpose. Collectively, they build our perception of reality and ensure our survival as biological beings. But while each of these tools (or parts of the brain) has a specific purpose, the product of that purpose often results in something else. Think of a hammer. You can pound a nail into a piece of wood, but you can also flip it around and pry the nail out.
Part of being human is the deeply-rooted need to communicate. As most of us would agree, it is our relationships with other humans, regardless if we’re talkative or not, that give meaning to our lives. We even have parts (or tools) of the brain that specifically serve this communicative function – and just like the hammer, these “mental mechanisms” produce bi-products. In this, case the bi-product is emotion, which serves as an excellent means of communicating. We’ve all been in the situation where we’ve had a friend who is clearly upset; despite them saying that everything is fine. With words we can mask the truth, but it is one’s emotive disposition (facial expressions, eye movement, body position, ect) that often conveys a more honest reality.
So if emotion is a by-product of our need to communicate, then where does music come in to play? In this case, you can view music, or the arts in general, as a canvas. Emotion is the paint. We humans have lots of feelings, and we express them through music. Some humans, called artists, create art as an extension of their feelings, to which other humans connect. We even express our connection to this art physically.
We feel good when we listen to music, even if that emotional connection makes us feel otherwise. And, in just about every culture, one of the most universal ways to express one’s relationship with music is to dance.
That brings me to my second point. In addition to serving both an emotive and psychological function of human existence, it also serves a purpose in societies. You see, the brain rewards us when we do something that allows us to survive.
Take, for instance, a delicious double-cheeseburger from McDonalds. It’s loaded in salt, fat, and sugar (carbs), aka, three ingredients that taste really good. If you’re a starving caveman in the middle of winter, there are few things that can provide more energy per unit of mass than salt, fat, and sugar. They’re also extremely rare in the animal kingdom. Through natural selection, we have developed a taste palette that prompts our desire to seek out these flavors, because those of us who did survived to later create offspring.
When we eat (generally unhealthy) foods like this, our brain releases a chemical (or neurotransmitter) called dopamine. As the Erowid forums will tell you, when you feel good, it’s because of dopamine. Eating and having sex yield more dopamine than any other activity. The first allows more humans to be made; the second makes sure you have the energy to do so. Sometimes, humans take drugs, which stimulate more dopamine production, like, a lot more than the naturally occurring dosage.
That signature tingle in your spine when you listen to a great song? That’s your brain producing dopamine. Yes, it’s actually rewarding you for listening to music. It rewards you even more when you listen to music in a group. And for some of us, it rewards us even greater for dancing in a group. Remember that mosh pit when you were seemingly invincible? Remember the rush of seeing your favorite band come back on for the encore? Remember the spiritual ecstasy while the praise band at church performed? Remember when that comedian was so much funnier when you saw it live? And don’t even get me started about raves… It should be pretty obvious seeing a live performance is way better when you experience it with your friends.
Again, these feelings are nothing new. Those early humans who partied together also formed tight social bonds – and music acted as a basis for these gatherings. Those who were more sensitive to music formed stronger social groups and lived to make more musically sensitive babies. Those who didn’t, well… we’ll just say they didn’t get laid and would eventually die off. Next time you find yourself in a massage train in a dirty Detroit warehouse, just remember, what you’re doing is essential to the survival of the human race.
We’ve covered music thus far, but we’re forgetting a key ingredient: Dancing.
Little do all those 17-year-old, moshing bro-steppers know their dance moves were once derived from our intrinsic need to get laid. Ok, maybe not entirely, but I really shouldn’t have to get scientific here. Common sense proves solid dance moves might help you find love or friendship. Even more so, they strengthen the relationships you already have. In fact, doctors Ed Hagen (Institute for Theoretical Biology, Humbolt Univ.) and Greg Bryant (Univ. of California) claim, “Music and Dance may have acted as a coalition signaling system that could, among other things, credibly communicate coalition quality, thus permitting meaningful cooperative relationships between groups.”
“Thanks for showing me how “Robotic Pop-It”, bro. Now I’ll totally be find a girlfriend at Skrillex’s show tonight!
What they’re saying is, when we dance together, we stay together. If you read all forty pages of their study like I did, you’d learn we select our friends by the way they dance. Just about every animal on the planet follows the same method. And so do you, even if you don’t know it. Because you’re an animal, too. Just like Ke$ha told you.
So next time you’re at the club and that dude in the Ed Hardy shirt starts grinding on your girlfriend, don’t worry, it’s just natural selection in action.
So there you have it, kiddos. We’ve developed a sensitivity to music and an affinity for dancing due to (at least to some extent) that as a species, we need to have sex and get along with our friends – that is, if we want to keep dominating the Earth. But really, I don’t mean to de-mystify music for you. I’m not intending to kill Santa Claus here…
I think that music - and the arts in general - are one of the greatest things to ever happen to mankind. It is through the arts that we define human nature. It is through the arts that we make sense of a terrifying and troubled world. It is the arts that allow us to explore its beauty.
They allow us to dive into our own consciousness; to pullup from the weeds meaning and purpose. The arts, more than anything else, drip with every feeling and sensation ever felt by mankind.
They also provide a means for cultural documentation, a historical mirroring of sorts, relaying the societal or individualistic attitude of the times. And in a world where the meaning of words are so easily skewed, the arts provide us an outlet for truth; a canvas to express the things we store in the deepest recesses of our being.
Lastly, the arts give us something to connect with. Something to remind us that there’s someone else out there feeling the same thing. The arts remind us that we are human beings who need to work together to survive. They remind us that for every ounce of hate, greed, and envy, there is an equal amount of love, compassion, and empathy. I often think that as the human race continues to progress, it is ultimately the arts that will keep us human.
And somewhere in the world there is a dark warehouse, club, festival, or arena… even a friend’s basement - where a group of humans find common ground as they represent culture and creed in flying colors. As a species, we are infinitely varied and our place in society is often determined by such measures. But in a place like this, between bass drops and hazer smoke, we find that while we may not all be equal, we can at least dance as if we are. For in the eyes of the bass, all men (and women) are created equal.
Science can tell us why and how music is so prominent in our lives, but the magic still remains if you let it. Because really, music does sound better with you.