The Five Elements of Musicality, Part 7: Harnessing Musicality

Vector Illustration of an Abstract Background with Music notesIn this series, I have proposed that we think of musicality as a gathering of the senses, and that we gather our senses creatively, emotionally, somatically, relationally, and improvisationally around the relationship between movement and music. These elements are not complicated. They are incredibly simple, and yet they allow for great complexity when applied consistently with time and effort.

If the elements of musicality are so simple, why does musicality seem to be such a problem? Why do we lament its absence in such a high percentage of the dancing population?

The central problem is the way we often think about musicality, which directly affects the way we teach and learn. Many people believe that musicality is a talent, that you either have it or you don’t. In this paradigm, musicality is natural for some, which means a lack of musicality is natural for others. But the reality is this: A lack of musicality is not natural. Rather, it is a normal response to a culture that separates body and mind, and a dance culture that separates movement and the music from which it developed. Restoring the natural connections between body and mind, movement and music, is the only way for musicality to become the norm in our dance communities. This restoration requires that we understand the human and cultural nature of musicality.


Harnessing: The Human and Cultural Nature of Musicality

Music and dance are distinctly human in creation, their logic based on the unique organization of human bodies and human minds. It’s easy to take this for granted, as we don’t know any other way to be, but our humanness is the single most important factor influencing these forms. It sets the limits and determines the possibilities of all our cultural creations. Stephen Nachmanovitch beautifully describes the impact of just the human hand on music in his book, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art:

The voice of the music comes to realization in and through the limits of your body. Look at your hand. Turn it over. Stretch it. Point it. Thump it. For a musician, of all the structures that impose their discipline on us, the most ubiquitous and marvelous is the human hand. Beginning with the fact that the hand has five digits and not six or four, the hand predisposes our work toward particular conformations because it itself has a shape. The kind of music you play on the violin or piano, the kind of painting that comes from your handling of the brush, the pottery you turn on the wheel, is intimately influenced by the shape of your hands, by the way they move, by their resistances. The structure of the hand is not (once again) “just anything”; the fingers have certain characteristic relationships, certain ranges of relative movement, certain kinds of crossing, torquing, jumping, sliding, pressing, releasing movements that guide the music to come out in a certain way. Graceful work uses those patterns and instinctively moves through them and out as we find ever-fresh combinations. The shape and size of the human hand brings powerful but subtle laws into every kind of art, craftsmanship, mechanical work, and into our ideas and feelings as well. There is a continuous dialogue between hand and instrument, hand and culture. Artwork is not thought up in consciousness and then, as a separate phase, executed by the hand. The hand surprises us, creates and solves problems on its own. Often enigmas that baffle our brains are dealt with easily, unconsciously, by the hand.

Music is not disembodied sound. It is sound created through the possibilities and limitations of human movement as well as human thought. Musicians organize sound based not only on their physical dexterity with music-making instruments, but also on the way they hear, feel, and move on a more global level. So the logic of music is intricately tied to the physical, mental, and emotional specificity of the human experience. David Borgo describes several examples in his book, Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age:

[T]he standard phrase length in music can be seen to correspond with the dynamic swells associated with breathing or the gradual sway of the body or a limb. The musical beat (particularly of dance-based music) corresponds not only to the frequency range of our heartbeat (as the musical term implies), but also generally to the rate of walking, sucking, chewing, head nodding, and sexual intercourse. Subdivisions of the pulse, perhaps at the level of the individual note, often correspond to the speed of speech patterns or hand gestures. And on the level of microtiming, small deviations such as grace notes or temporal asynchronies seem to correspond with rapid flams between fingers or limbs, or to the rate of delivery of individual phonemes in speech.

These correspondences make sense if we remember that musicians created this music, and they did so with a body like ours and a mind like ours, which is to say a human one. So it makes sense for the music – and the connections between the music and the dance – to follow the possibilities of human fingers, hands, and feet, the rhythms of walking and breathing, and the sound relationships that make sense to human minds and bodies. In fact, all cultural forms – from music and dance to sports and art – survive, evolve, and resonate with us when they fit how we perceive, how we feel, the possibilities for movement, and the capabilities of the various systems of our bodies to interact with each other and with other bodies in time and space.

That a cultural form survives, evolves, and resonates with us when it fits the physical, mental, and emotional specificity of human experience is explained by the “harnessing” theory developed by scientist Mark Changizi, whom I quoted in Part 1 of this series. In his book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, Changizi argues that both language and music are “highly efficient brain mechanisms” that excel at “nature-harnessing.” The reason these forms have such staying power over the course of time is that they resonate with the way our human bodies and brains operate, and culturally evolve so they can be passed down and elaborated by each subsequent generation:

The origins of language and music may be attributable, not to brains having evolved language and music instincts, but rather to language and music having culturally evolved brain instincts. Language and music shaped themselves over many thousands of years to be tailored to our brains, and because our brains were cut for nature, language and music mimicked nature… It is not so much that our brains learn language and music, but rather that culture learned how to package language and music so that they fit right into our brains. Culture learned how to harness us.

I hope you didn’t miss this sentence: “It is not so much that our brains learn language and music, but rather that culture learned how to package language and music so that they fit right into our brains.” Think of how powerful this reality is! Countless people believe that music or dance is out of their reach, that somehow they were not designed for it. But the reality is that music and dance forms have stood the test of time precisely because they have been designed for us. So music and dance are not off limits to anyone, because they emerged from a human biology that we possess and a human culture that we can adopt if we so choose. The only requirement is the application of time and effort to that culture.

The application of time and effort is essential, for although a cultural form harnesses natural human capacities that we all possess, many generations have committed to exploring the world through this form. Over the course of many decades these generations have developed extensive knowledge and skill, further refining and elaborating on the dance. So there is natural learning curve of cultural transmission required to attain to the form’s clarity and complexity. Just as the dance form harnessed human capabilities into a unique form, we as individuals harness the collective wisdom of the community – both consciously and subconsciously – to develop a level of proficiency that would be impossible on our own. This proficiency is what allows us to express ourselves through a particular dance form in increasingly complex ways, and it is only possible through this learning curve of cultural transmission.


Human Harnessing: Repairing Our Culture’s Mind-Body Split

Although there is a necessary learning curve with any dance form, we tend to recognize that it is often much steeper than it needs to be, especially when it comes to musicality. Why is this? If musicality is harnessing human capacities that we all possess, why do so many dancers struggle?

The answer is that our cultures, communities, and individuals vary in how effectively they harness our human bodies and minds. We live in a culture of Cartesian duality, meaning a culture in which mind and body are treated as separate entities. Aspects of our human experience that are deeply connected become fragmented in such a culture, and the way we teach and learn dance follows this broader cultural trend. As a result, we isolate the mechanics of movement from the sensations and emotions of the mover, divorcing movement from the expression and musicality that informs it. Thomas Moore describes the consequences of this mechanical approach in his book, Care of the Soul:

When we relate to our bodies as having soul, we attend to their beauty, their poetry and their expressiveness. Our very habit of treating the body as a machine, whose muscles are like pulleys and its organs engines, forces its poetry underground, so that we experience the body as an instrument and see its poetics only in illness.

There are two major symptoms of this mechanical thinking in our dance culture, two separations that we commonly make when it comes to musicality.

First, we deny that musicality can be taught. We often separate ourselves into groups based on talent and ability, believing there are those who get it and those who don’t. This comes from not understanding that our music and dance forms are harnessing human capacities that we all possess. What I like about the five elements I’ve described in this series is that they call out these capacities. We all have these creative, emotional, somatic, relational, and improvisational aspects of ourselves. However, in our culture these capacities are underdeveloped and disconnected from each other in most people to varying degrees. This is often interpreted as a lack of musical inability, further evidence that you either have it or you don’t, and that if you don’t it can’t be taught. But what it really means is that part of teaching and learning musicality is restoring these capacities, removing the blocks created within the context of our disconnected and disembodied culture.

Second, because we separate the mechanics of movement from its expressivity, if we do teach musicality we often believe it should be taught later. We believe that there is already too much to think about when learning movement, and that adding musicality later will create the same result as teaching them together from the beginning. Both of these assumptions are false. The reality is that human beings learn more effectively when their senses are gathered, for as we saw with the five elements they are interdependent and develop to the fullest when their connections are active. Learning dance mechanically without the creative, emotional, somatic, relational, and improvisational elements is a handicap. It deprives movement of its human qualities, creating an even greater separation between sensation and response instead of developing them as part of a single system from the beginning. This makes musical movement much more difficult to develop later on.

We can take some hints from a parallel discussion in the music world. In his book A Life in Music, musician and conductor Daniel Barenboim writes:

I often meet musicians who try to solve certain problems in a technical, mechanical way first, and then try to add the ‘musicianship,’ like cream on top of a cake. The two must be linked from the very beginning because the technical means used to overcome certain physical problems will influence the expression…To separate the technical from the expressive side in music is like separating the body from the soul… When the technical problems of finger dexterity have been solved, it is too late to add musicality, phrasing and musical expression. That is why I never practice mechanically. If we work mechanically, we run the risk of changing the very nature of music.

Changing the very nature of dance is exactly what is at risk when we separate movement from its music, and when we separate both from the humanity from which they spring. In a world where our senses are so often fragmented, dance is a form that allows us to gather them together again, to become more human. But this only happens when gathering our senses permeates the way we understand, discuss, learn, and teach the dance. As with the Necker cube we discussed with the creative element in Part 2 of this series, the way we look affects what we see; our approach determines the outcome.


To Define or Not To Define

My musicality series started as a response to an online debate about whether musicality is a useless buzzword, which included the assertion by several that the concept of musicality is not used in the music world. The word “musicality” is indeed used in the music world on occasion, just not nearly to the extent that it is in dance. But even when the word itself is not used, musicality is constantly debated. The questions are very familiar: what is the relationship between technique and expression, how do our emotions make it into our playing, and, ultimately, what is the difference between playing notes and playing music. In the dance world our debates follow parallel themes, and ultimately we’re asking this question: What is dance? What is the difference between moving and dancing?

Musicality – music in the body – is the difference between moving and dancing. And because we live in a culture that separates mind and body and isolates the senses, musicality has become the ultimate buzzword in an attempt restore this cultural separation. Our problem is that we continue to feed the separation by treating musicality as something that is added to movement after the fact, rather than something that is intrinsic to dance itself. Dance is not a movement system applied to music; it is a movement-music system. This is a very key difference.

When we think of it this way, it becomes difficult to distinguish musicality from dance. What is the difference between them? Take a handful of dance videos and try to find one in which the dancers are musical but not really dancing, or dancing but not really musical. Can you find one in which the fate of one is not tied to the fate of the other? Ultimately, the point is not to find an answer to the question of musicality so we can move on to other things. Musicality is the thing. It is the central question of dance that we live and explore together. When we see musicality as definable, we limit our dance. When we see musicality as indefinable and continue to ask the question, we find the inexhaustibility of our dance.

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Thank you for joining me for this exploration of The Five Elements of Musicality! To complete the homework for Part 7, click here.

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