Motionally Moving

Group activities with toddlers are hopeless. Just as you get the top toddler into position at the peak of the toddler pyramid, several on the bottom level have begun crying, pooping, or wandering away. Toddlers prefer to treat their day‑care mates as objects to ignore, climb over, or hit. And just try getting a dozen of them to do anything in unison, like performing “the wave” in the audience at a roller derby! If aliens observed us humans only during toddlerhood, they might conclude that we don’t get on well in groups, and that, lacking a collaborative spirit, we will be easy prey when they invade.

But brain‑thirsty aliens might come to a very different conclusion if they dropped in on a day‑care center during music time. Flip on “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round,” and a dozen randomly wandering, cantankerous droolers begin shaking their stinky bottoms in unison. Aliens might surmise that music is some kind of marching order, a message from the human commander to activate gyrations against an invading enemy.

Dancing toddlers, of course, play little or no role in explaining why we haven’t been invaded by aliens, but they do raise an important question. Why do toddlers seem to be compelled to move to the music? And, more generally, why is this a tendency we keep into adulthood? At this very moment of writing, I am, in fact, swaying slightly to Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Don’t I have better things to do? Yes, I do–like write this book. Yet I keep pausing to hear the music, and end up ever so slightly dancing. It is easy to understand why people dance when a gun is fired at their feet like in old Westerns, but music is so much less substantial than lead, and yet it can get us going as surely as a Colt 45. What is the source of music’s power to literally move us, like rats to the Pied Piper’s flute?

We can make sense of this mystery in light of the theory that music sounds like human movement. If music sounds like movement, and music makes us move, then it is not so much music that is making us move, but the sound of human movement. And that’s not at all mysterious! Of course the behaviors of others may elicit responsive actions from us. For example, if my three‑year‑old son barrels headlong toward my groin, I quickly move my hands downward for protection. If he throws a rubber ball at my head, I try to catch it. And if he suddenly decides he’d rather not wear his bathing shorts, I quickly pull them back up. Not only do I behave in reaction to my son’s behavior, but my behavior must be timed appropriately, lest he careen into me, bean me with a ball, or strip buck‑naked and get a head start in his dash away. Music sounds like human behavior, and human behavior often elicits appropriately timed behavioral responses in others, so it is not a surprise, in light of the theory, that music elicits appropriately timed behavioral responses.

It’s easy to see why three‑year‑old aggressive and streaking behaviors would prompt a well‑timed response in others (especially parents). Another common category of human behavior that elicits a behavioral response in others, in fact one of the most common, is expressive behavior. Human expressions are for other humans to see or hear or smell, precisely in order to prompt them to modulate their behavior. Sometimes another person’s response may be a complex whole‑body behavior (I give my wife my come‑hither look, she responds by going thither), and sometimes the other person’s behavioral response may simply be an expression of emotion (I grimace and rub my newly minted bruise, and my son responds by smiling). If music is good at getting us to move, then, in this light, one suspects that music must usually sound not merely like movement that kicks (literally, in my son’s case) listeners into moving in response, but, more specifically, like human emotional or expressive behaviors.

Sound triggering movement. That’s starting to sound a bit like dance. To more fully understand dance, we must grasp one further thing: contagious behaviors–behavioral expressions that tend to spread. For example, if I smile, you may smile back; and if I scowl, you’ll likely scowl back. Even yawns are catching. And contagious behavior is not confined to the face. Nervous behavior can spread, and angry bodily stances are likely to be reciprocated. If you raise your hands high into the air, a typical toddler will also do so, at which point you have a clear tickle shot. Even complex whole‑body behaviors are contagious, accounting for why, for example, people in a crowd often remain passive bystanders when someone is being attacked (other people’s inaction spreads), and how a group of people can become a riotous mob (other people’s violent behavior spreads). By the way, have you yawned yet?

Music, then, may elicit movement for the same reasons that a cartoon smiley face can elicit smiles in us: music can often sound like contagious expressive human behavior and movement, and trigger a similar expressive movement in us. Music may not be marching orders from our commander, but it can sometimes cue our emotional system so precisely that we feel almost compelled to march in lockstep with music’s fictional mover. And this is true whether we are adults or toddlers. When music is effective at getting us to mimic the movement it mimics, we call it dance music, be it a Strauss waltz or a Grateful Dead flail.

The music‑sounds‑like‑movement theory can, then, explain why music provokes us to dance–the third of the four hurdles a theory of music must leap over. The fourth and final hurdle concerns the structure of music, and it will take the upcoming chapter and the Encore chapter to make the case that music has the signature structure of humans moving.


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