Musicality Book Club, Week 2: Music in the Body

bookWe’re now on Chapter 1 of Mathieu’s Bridge of Waves: What Music Is and How Listening to It Changes the World, which is tantalizingly titled Music as Body. This chapter is a nice segue from the introduction last week when Mathieu and I wrote about how the upper and lower body connote spirituality and groundedness (read last week’s post here).

Before we go further, let me just give a quick update: By request, I will now be including page numbers at the end of quotes from the book in case you want to go back and find the appropriate section; feel free to do the same in your comments if you’re quoting something new from the book. Okay, let’s begin…

My impression is that Mathieu’s biggest intended take-away from this chapter is the idea that music is energy that comes from within the body rather than outside of it. He writes of the harm to this idea by modern society’s specialization in the field of the music among others:

…music has largely become, for most of us, a commodity made for mass consumption and manufactured by specialists. We don’t make music, we buy it… When the resonances of music are experienced as traveling from out there to in here, we become estranged from the rhythmic and harmonic states that arise naturally from our own bodies. One of the hard truths of my own American life is that it’s been decades since I’ve heard “Happy Birthday” sung in a restaurant in tune. What has happened to us?…

[O]verall, we know better how to consume music that how to physically participate in the making of it, and the trend of specialization continues. So as an individual in a society remarkably cut off from its own music-making body, how does one go about making the body connection? [pp. 4-5]

One of the biggest hurdles for many dancers is making the transition from hearing music as an object, detached from the self, to feeling music as living, breathing energy. Even the language we use sometimes conveys this idea: “Hitting a break” contributes to a sense of “chasing” the music. But what’s amazing is when we consciously try not to “follow” the music, we generally find it at least a little tough, if not incredibly difficult. It’s like the music is a magnet pulling us into its rhythm, its lyricism, its flow. But the opposite can also happen. When we try to chase the music instead of relaxing into it, we can find it just as hard to be “on the music.”

One thing I absolutely love about dancing is that I feel like I’m actually changing the music every time I dance it. Of course in a literal sense this can’t be true. But when I choose to accent certain parts of the music or draw attention to other parts by pausing or toning down my movement while letting the energy build internally, I am actually participating in how that music gets heard – and therefore felt – by myself, my partner, and anyone else who is watching. Does anyone else experience this?

There are only a few partners who have made me feel this in an obvious way that really thrills me and gets me deeper into the music. But at a base level this is always happening. You cannot help but feel the music through the lens – i.e. the body – of your partner, and this experience is heightened tenfold when you are attentive, listening and inviting of this communication. The challenge is to listen and communicate deeper when you find yourself dancing with someone whose musicality (in whatever form or stage) is not immediately felt or understood. I struggle with this often. When I do get a payoff, it comes in the form of a dance that appears to have three participants weaving in and out of each other in perfect (or delightfully imperfect) interplay.

Mathieu also writes about gravity as one of the keys to connecting music and body:

Gravity is an attractive force; you are alive in a field of desire. The earth wants you, and you want it…

Your mass is innate to your being, and every aspect of your body’s form has been shaped by the attractive force drawing your mass and the earth’s mass toward one another – love in its simplest form. Yet as in any love relationship, one has to learn to be separate as well as conjoined, so you know also how to lift your arms and legs, to rise up against the pull of the earth… When you walk consciously in tune with gravity and your body’s innate response to it, you tend to walk most easily and efficiently, like a marriage going well. [p. 5]

This is a very beautiful metaphor and a very present reality at the same time. Coincidentally, this past weekend our local tango community was lucky to be visited by tango instructor Hsueh-tze Lee for a series of workshops. What I love about both her dancing and her teaching is the emphasis placed on being grounded. Regardless of which concepts and patterns Hsueh-tze teaches, the importance of grounding permeates the movement and the connection. In fact, this weekend she spoke specifically (and often) about the efficiency and fluidity of pushing into the floor (i.e., grounding) with the lower body while lifting with the upper body, which is exactly what I wrote about in response to the introduction to Mathieu’s book last week. So this is a physical and metaphysical reality at the same time, and also provides great metaphorical food for our thoughts and emotions in the context of music. I also find a perfect parallel here for the tango embrace (re-read the quote above, replacing the concept of gravity above with the embrace, and you’ll see what I mean), so that’s even more to think about and discuss.

Continuing with Mathieu’s thoughts on Mind as Body, he goes on to discuss one of my absolute favorite topics, and the first thing that always come to mind for me when I think of the mind-body connection in the context of musicality: the concept of embodied cognition.

Bodily response to a certain quality of sound is called embodied cognition – a way of saying that our minds map what we hear onto our bodies in specific ways…

When you feel your gut respond to a funky bass line, or you shape a lovely melody with your hands, or lift your eyes upward to a soaring violin, that is your private embodied-cognition research. When you notice how your feet seek the floor on the low drum sounds of downbeats (boom), and your body rises against gravity on the high cymbal sounds of upbeats (chick), you are doing boom-chick research – unfunded, perhaps, but no less authentic. How do music, gravity, and human body all become one fluid thing? You yourself are the researcher, and this is your noble science. [p. 7]

What I like about what Mathieu writes here is that he again frames music as something that is generated from within, not imposed from without. Regardless of whether you agree to its literal truth (part of the nature vs. nurture, innate vs. learned debate), this mindset is far more useful in helping dancers past their self-consciousness and negative self talk when it comes to musicality. And it recognizes that while musicality is magical and even mysterious, it is not attainable only for a select few (see also the Everyday Magic section of Born to Improvise). And, perhaps more importantly, it is not something that can only be cultivated through instruction; personal exploration – Mathieu’s embodied-cognition research – offers dancers a way to develop musicality organically.

In my interview with him a couple of years ago, Alex Krebs also recommended this type of personal research:

I recommend dancing on your own and then when you get with your partner sort of bring back that spirit of how you would dance in your kitchen alone if you put on tango music. You wouldn’t just walk and not move your body.

Of course personal exploration doesn’t consist only of dancing around a room by yourself in the hopes that inspiration and understanding will comes your way. There are lessons all around us. Watching other dancers and other types of dancers, listening to different musical styles and genres, watching musicians improvise, playing air guitar or air drums, imagining yourself or others dancing to music, making up your own music while dancing or even doing everyday activities, moving to everything or to nothing, noticing your physical and emotional responses whenever you experience dance or music in any form (including the non-traditional) – all of these activities are opportunities for musical discovery.

Here are a few more examples from Mathieu of how embodied cognition works:

The low/down, high/up metaphor seems to be the most widely shared across cultures, but there are many other ways our minds have of mapping sounds onto our bodies and the spaces around them. Music is slow as a yawn or fast as a blink, and all of its time scales and periodicities are measured against the natural dimensions of the body. Music is languid or energetic, relaxed or tense; our bodies are the measure of these. Melodies step (two successive tones are neighbors in the scale, hence easy to sing) or leap (successive tones far apart in the scale, less easy to sing). Music’s sonorities are full or empty, its textures crowded or spacious; it sounds close up or far away. Notice that these are not emotional or psychological responses, even though they could easily lead to them (we will discuss those in chapter 3). These are cognitive perceptions that correlate musical sounds to your body in space. [p. 8]

Embodied cognition is a fascinating area of study. If you are interested in reading more about this concept, I recommend two books that just came out this year: V.S. Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human and James Geary’s I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World.

Wow, this isn’t even the shortest chapter of Mathieu’s book, and I definitely have more food for thought than I can delve into here without getting long and winded. But to pose a final question that Mathieu also touches on in Chapter 1:

What similarities do you find between your experiences of…

  • music and life cycles?
  • music and breathing?
  • music and body rhythms?
  • music and sex?

So what are your thoughts on any or all of the above, or anything else from Chapter 1 of Bridge of Waves? I look forward to reading your comments so we can discuss further. And don’t forget to come back next Tuesday for Chapter 2: Music as Mind!

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Here’s the next post in this series:
Musicality Book Club, Week 3: Organic and Created Patterns Through Pulse

3 comments on Musicality Book Club, Week 2: Music in the Body

  1. cypresssalsero1
    March 10, 2011 at 7:27 pm (7 years ago)

    I’m having a good time reading this book and I find myself a bit eager to read ahead. I generally agree with most of the points the author makes, but there are some points that are a bit too fuzzy for my tastes. I get most of what he has written, but much of his writing seems way too philosophical. At times I feel the author is simply rediscovering the obvious. However, his ideas are definitely thought provoking. The author impressed me with two points in chapter 1, the first: the importance of “making” music… and the second: awareness of your body’s connection to the earth, through gravity. My favorite line from chapter 1 is: “Your musical responses, not mine, are the subject of this book.” Many musicians do participate in “making music” and dancers participate in interpreting music. There are some, as the author suggested, who passively consume music. Interestingly, I had a discussion with a musician I know, and he talked about “quasi-musicians” who create what he called pseudo-music or “noise”. For me, the value of quasi-music depends on the purpose of the music or what the piece was meant for…but I suppose there could be a standard that defines what “music” really is… maybe a standard that most musical composers agree upon. So the points that the author makes in this chapter raise some interesting debate.

    The concept of embodied cognition seems to be very subjective and probably has varying degrees of experience depending on each person. I’m not sure if the author wants us to use more “names” and labels, but here again is one more name. Personally, I like labels and I believe it is important to name your goal, your creation, and the interplay of forces that enable or prevent you from achieving that goal. Music is also about communicating a message. What about the accuracy of that message? I generally agree with the author, that the “low/down, high/up metaphor seems to be the most widely shared across cultures…” On the other hand, this also brought to mind some studies from psychology that focused on cultural differences in perception. Also from Psychology, there is a lot of research that describes “schemas” and how those help an individual make sense of the world. If 3 of 5 individuals see a shirt, and label it a “blue” shirt, what about the 1 individual who recognizes the shirt as “lavender” in color… and another who sees a “purple” shirt? Isn’t each person’s perception of the color just as valid? How does this fit with composers, musicians or dancers when there is disagreement about the music and its interpretation? I personally agree and find interesting, from a dance point of view, the author’s explanation of how music fits so naturally with the focus of dancers, especially during the creation of a dance… like when you are practicing or maybe when social dancing…. the series of dance moves, steps, choreography, improvisation, etc. How do all these elements fit together? From a learner’s point of view, what are the better choices? What are the practical implications of this book? I will continue to read this book with interest and curiosity, because the author began the chapter by stating: “Your responses, not mine, are the subject of this book.” I am curious to know if you did the mini-experiment suggested on page 8. If you did, what song or songs did you use? What conclusion did you reach after trying the 2 parts of the experiment?

    Reply
    • Joy in Motion
      March 11, 2011 at 7:30 pm (7 years ago)

      I know what you mean about his concepts being a bit fuzzy. I think that’s part of the author’s goal though, like what we wrote on page 3: “It is probably impossible to say where music stops and the rest of the world begins, if there is a rest of the world. Music is a noun like love or sanity, with a hard core and fuzzy boundaries… This book, concerned primarily with wordless music, will define music broadly, freely including all styles, all cultures, all history, and go even beyond that by focusing on your own responses to what you hear as music. Let’s say that you recognize music when you hear it precisely because you have a certain kind of response, the kind you might call a musical response. Your musical responses, not mine, not anyone else’s, are the subject of this book.”

      As far as rediscovering the obvious… I think the simple stuff is often the hardest. Much of the most brilliant writing, teaching, and thinking out there consists of truths that seem obvious once you hear them. Someone once wrote about an article of mine that it was filled with obvious generalities, and yet when I teach these same concepts to others they often tell me they feel like their minds have been opened to see things in a completely new way. I think the essence of something is often pure and simple, yet extremely difficult to master (think Zen), and much of life consists of getting back to the basics (the same with technique in dance). Teaching often consists of making the familiar new and the new familiar. I like this quote from T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

      As far as the whole objective/subjective debate when it comes to dance and musical expression, that’s definitely opening a can of worms. I really want to write about this soon because I do have some thoughts, but I think I’ll wait so I can organize them better and make it a separate discussion. I didn’t try the exercises while reading this chapter, but I naturally do both pretty regularly and think they’re definitely valuable exercises for those who haven’t tried them. Not sure I have anything in particular to share about my experiences with that right now, but I am definitely curious to hear from dancers who are trying it for the first time.

      Reply
      • cypresssalsero1
        March 13, 2011 at 7:32 pm (7 years ago)

        Maybe the human brain, through all its inter-connected neural networks, is “hard-wired” for music. I am in the process of researching more of this topic, which is exactly why I’m reading this book. So, I don’t know if Mathieu has stated this outright as fact, or I am understanding him to mean… that music begins in the brain, before the first key, first note, is played on the piano. I enjoyed the exercise, although I found the second part of the exercise a bit more difficult than the first. Since Mathieu stated the book is concerned with wordless music, I had 3 songs in mind, but I chose 2. The first was a song that I later discovered has words, but the only version I’ve heard… and used for this exercise, was the instrumental version of “En Aranjuez con tu amor” recorded by C. Santana.

        Reply

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