Music Making Brings Us Together

As cities all over the world shut down to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, a new crop of videos emerged on the internet: Italians singing from their balconies, policemen in Spain playing guitar while on patrol and New York City apartment dwellers singing along to The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” from their windows.

People across the globe started making music together from their windows and balconies. As music neuroscientists who study how music affects our bodies and brains, we would like to shed light on the question: why do we turn to collective music-making in times of crisis?

Universal Response

Music is universal — no human culture exists without it. Even if we only tap or move along, our universal response to music is to join in. This inclination is deeply rooted in neurobiology — our brain’s neural motor, or movement, system lights up when we hear music, even if we appear to be remaining still.

Research has shown that the motor system is particularly responsive to the beat, the regular pulse in music that people typically tap or dance along with. The beat has a privileged role in music, capturing our attention and sometimes driving us to move without us even being aware of it.

The process by which we synchronize movements to the beat is called entrainment. Entrainment occurs when ongoing brain activity aligns in time with the beat of the music. Entrainment has been observed not only in auditory brain areas but also in motor brain areas.

Entrainment is central to our ability to accurately perceive and produce the beat with our bodies, as we do during tapping, singing or dancing to music. In fact, research suggests that the better our brain entrains to the beat, the more accurate we are at perceiving and synchronizing with music. Our desire to move to music may be rooted in our brain’s spontaneous alignment of its activity to the beat.

Making Music Together

The ability to entrain to a musical beat may also be what allows us to produce music with others. Group music-making is a remarkable phenomenon when considered from the perspective of neurobiology: not only are individuals playing music together, their brains are finding the same beat.

Entrainment allows us to achieve what researchers call interpersonal synchrony, or the alignment of behaviour in time. Being in sync with others is important for many kinds of human behaviour. It enables us to coordinate synchronized actions as a group, from singing in a choir to rowing a boat, as well as the turn-taking behaviours that make for good conversations. The desire for interpersonal synchrony may drive humans to perform music together during this pandemic.

Interpersonal synchrony is a powerful tool that creates a sense of belonging and participation. When people produce actions in synchrony, they later feel more connection or affiliation towards one another, and are also more likely to trust and co-operate.

The social benefits of interpersonal synchrony have been observed early in child development. One well-known study shows that toddlers are more likely to help an adult — for example, retrieving more dropped items — when the child has previously been bounced in synchrony with that adult.

The bonding that arises through group synchrony serves practical societal functions: army troops march in step, children bond with parents by singing songs together and now groups clap, bang pots and cheer for health-care workers to signal solidarity. Interpersonal synchrony can also improve one’s emotional state, increasing mood and self-esteem.

Music’s Cultural Role

There is a reason music is found in every known culture. Music moves us at the level of the body, the brain and the group. The interpersonal synchrony that we achieve through making music links our minds and bodies, enhancing social cohesion, bonding and other positive outcomes.

Right now, in the midst of a period in which the need for social bonding is perhaps greater than ever, we are glad to see socially isolated people still finding a way to make music together. Sing on, together!

We Got the Beat

The Blue Man Group came to my daughter’s school this week to teach them a little about what they do.  You can read more about it here. My husband and I saw them in Las Vegas over New Year’s—I know I’m late to the party in discovering them, but I instantly fell in love.

I could probably write dissertation on the history of drums, and many people have done just that, with more expertise and eloquence than I can.  Nevertheless, here are some interesting tidbits for you to think about, next time you find yourself drumming in Kindermusik class:

You don’t actually need a physical drum to do percussion for a song.  While people have been using their bodies for percussion for centuries, the modern, human “beat box” developed as hip hop and rap began implementing drum machines in their music, starting in the 80’s.  Of course, it didn’t take long for the human beat box to infiltrate all types of music:

Though it seemed obvious to me once I learned it, bagpipes are either “on” or “off.”  A piper cannot employ volume swells.  Therefore, the drums in a pipe band (though they have many functions) serve to lend a pipe band further interest through the addition of dynamics:

Steel drums from Trinidad and Tobago aren’t really drums—at least, not in the way we think of a snare drum or bass drum.  They are called “drums” because they originate from oil drums or other similar steel containers.  They are a percussion instrument, of course, but they belong to the “idiophone” group of instruments, rather than the “membranophones” (the difference being whether one is striking a membrane to cause a vibration sound, or the whole instrument itself).  Being idiophones, the steel drums are related to wood blocks, triangles and marimbas (all instruments we get to play with at the studio!).

What a plethora of possibilities for participation n percussion!

Ensemble Work in Kindermusik

Bell choir season is upon us.  I attended just such a concert last weekend and left in amazement. (Well, also with some bells still ringing in my head, but since I attend bell choir concerts very rarely, that’s OK.)

(This isn’t the choir that I saw, but in researching this post, I found this clip of young high school students performing “Rolling in the Deep” and thought it was worth sharing.)

As part of the guitar lessons I’m taking, I play in a band.  Even though I played in a band in junior high school, this is a whole different experience for me.  Perhaps because I’m an adult now, and can appreciate the challenge of needing a drummer who stays on beat and the role my electric guitar fills have in creating the final piece.  Perhaps it’s because there aren’t 15 trumpets to drown me and my little ol’ flute out.  Perhaps it’s because, you know, we’re not a junior high band (I think, if there is a special level of heaven for junior high teachers, as so many say, then there is an extra special level for the music teachers).

At any rate, with some experience now playing in a group (and there are only 6 of us), I walked away from the bell concert with total admiration for the level of ensemble work that the bell ringers (upwards of 40 people) exhibited.  For instance, as every bell ringer plays just one or two notes, when they play a chord along with other players they have to figure out how to either play with the exact same volume (if that is what is required), or, conversely, which note will stand out.  Then they have to do this across time, as well, so that multiple players participate in similar dynamics.

Those are just elements of teamwork that take place during the song.  What if someone is sick?  Or breaks their arm?  Do they have understudies for different notes?  What about practicing?  They must spend a lot of time and energy preparing for such a concert.  Much of a hand bell choir’s skill involves chiming in (hah!) at just the right moment, so being with each other to practice is critical.

In the Kindermusik for the Young Child classes, students begin learning how to play in an ensemble.  Such a skill transfers directly over to other activities (such as sports or schoolwork), but it also creates a great foundation for additional music ensemble work.  Turn-taking, cooperation, steady beat and rhythm all come together when kids learn how to create music as part of a community.  One bell doesn’t sound very interesting, but put 40 bell ringers together and something amazing happens.  The same is true of our Kindermusik students—they see that, when they all come together in something, the group creates something that any one person can’t produce alone.  I have really appreciated that my kids have been part of just such a musical community, in part because by doing so, my kids are learning how to navigate the complexities of a world where we must work together.

As the executive director of the Crowden Music Center in Berkley, California, Doris Fukwa states, “Children need to develop in various ways. Being a positive participant in a musical ensemble develops invested ‘citizens of the world.’ ”

Kindermusik Goes Flamenco

I just got back from seeing Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Being here feeds my soul. However, I found myself totally distracted during the actor’s musical performance. The woman playing Jaquenetta (Betsy Mugavero, in this case) was playing a mean guiro, with which I have become very familiar during my time at the Kindermusik. The page, Moth (played by Melisa Pereyra), was playing the castanets.

castanets

After a moment, I became enthralled with her movements, realizing that for all the time that I’ve played with the castanets during instrument play in the studio, I have never once figured them out to my satisfaction. Yes, I find them just as much fun to play with as my kids. I promise I take turns.

Ah, grateful that we live in the information age, and for a wi-fi connection. For your education, I give you three “how-to” castanet videos that I found especially helpful (though I don’t have my castanets here to practice, you can bet I’ll put them on when I get home).

Do you wonder why we have castanets at the studio? First, it gives kids yet one more instrument to explore according to their own choice, helping them learn and retain information better. It’s also a great way to give our kids some power over their lives, something that in turn helps them follow our instructions when needed. Additionally, playing with castanets exposes to different timbres, and any time kids work on keeping a steady beat they are learning a foundational skill for many other activities, including running or cutting with scissors. Finally, it means that one day, they may be sitting in the audience of a play, and they’ll know what a castanet is, and stand in admiration of anyone who can make it look easy.