music and the body

views updated

music and the body

Historical roots

From the very earliest relics we find examples of the link made by humans between music and the body. A corpse found in Poland, dating back to the eight century bc, was buried with nine musical bone pipes, thought to symbolize the man's shamanic wisdom and magical powers. Since ancient times, music has served many ceremonial functions, ranging from tribal circumcision to marriage and death. The ancient Egyptians depicted scenes on their sarcophagi of people playing instruments, to show their belief that music accompanied the body to its final meeting with the gods. So this recognized not only that music was created and performed by humans, but that it would assist them to transcend their bodily confines after death. Particularly in aboriginal culture, we see the strength of the link between music and the body. In this oldest living culture, surviving relatively unchanged for over 40 000 years, virtually all aspects of human behaviour have an intrinsic link with music: eating, hunting, love-making, birth, marriage, and death are all music-filled activities. The music of the Australian aborigines is heavily based in song, and so is linked to the most fundamental human instrument of all, the voice. Aboriginal songs include many kinds of vocalizations ranging from growling, grunting, and shrieking to bitonal syllabic chanting. This music demonstrates how human communication has evolved from survival function through to the engagement in singing for artistic pleasure. Of course, any communication involves the processes of both perception and response.

Music perception and response

In the case of Jeanne d'Albret, mother of King Henry IV of France, ‘sweet’ music was played to her every morning during her pregnancy in the belief that the fetus could hear the music, and that the music would help to mould the baby's temperament. Historians of the day reported that Henry IV was always in good spirits, as a direct consequence of this procedure. It was demonstrated only in the 1980s that the human cochlea (the organ of hearing) functions as early as the twentieth week of gestation, that the fetal world is a noise-filled one, and that new-borns show familiarity with musical stimuli they have been exposed to six weeks before birth. So perception begins early, and audition is a significant fetal experience with aural learning occurring in utero. Indeed, arguably, much of what the fetus hears is essentially musical. Amniotic fluid attenuates sound; therefore the mother's voice, the sounds of her body such as heartbeat, and sounds from the outer world are only partially heard. Only the basic sound pattern of the mother's voice will be heard, stripped of its semantic content: the speech patterns are heard in utero as a series of undulating and related pitches. These patterns derive meaning for the fetus from the shape, speed, volume, and pitch height, and are associated with elements similar to those of a musical melody. Sounds are also experienced physically through the acoustical vibrations in the fluid, and so are directly related to bodily sensations. Thus, the sounds and feelings correspond closely to experiences of music in the external world.

Observation and reporting have widely indicated that from very early childhood music elicits bodily experiences linked to the experience of emotion: the enharmonic key changes in tonal music are often associated with ‘shivers down the spine’ or ‘goose bumps’, reflecting psychological states such as excitement, joy, or sadness. Linking back to the fetal experience of Henry IV, it would follow that the content of the music he was hearing may indeed have had some emotional effect, this in turn arguably having an impact on his personality state of general good spirits. Personality is, of course, a complex phenomenon, with many innate, stable components as well as emergent and changing aspects. Yet, research has suggested that amongst musicians very particular personality characteristics are evident, reflecting emotional qualities such as great sensitivity.

In the pre-natal experience, much is also mediated by the mother: in addition to the fetus's own direct responses to the music, it will have been receiving information about the mother's moods and emotions, conveyed through chemical and physiological changes, such as increased heart rate. Therefore, Henry IV was likely to have been heavily influenced by how his mother responded to the music as well as having his own perceptions. So, from the earliest exposure to musical stimuli, it appears that our responses are rooted in bodily sensation.

An example of music and its bodily origin is found in the way in which individuals perceive and respond to musical rhythm. It is known that we possess an innate ability to estimate intervallic relations. Indeed, when we listen to musical stimuli, we use the musical information already heard to provide a reference for ongoing perception. We are able to anticipate regular events (demonstrated by anticipatory body movements) — and react to a disturbance of these events. We find this intrinsically pleasurable, and our bodies are highly responsive. There is now ample evidence that fast musical pulses increase our heart rate and can make us drive faster, eat more quickly, make love more vigorously, and so on. By contrast, slow musical rhythms provide relaxation, promoting rest: lullabies soothe, and assist sleep as the heart rate slows.

In the first year of life, it has been demonstrated that motor activity most typically occurs in rhythmical bursts. The rhythmical nature of these bursts is believed to have a key role in general motor development, giving the child a repertoire of motor routines that are practised to become increasingly fine-grained and specific. An example of this practice is how an infant's burst of rhythmical leg activity develops into walking in toddlerhood. From this base, it is possible to understand how motor skills for the performance of musical rhythms develop: initially, there will be bursts of activity that are not necessarily close to the musical rhythm, and, over time, increasingly controlled and accurate movements will develop that can be both predictive of a regular pulse, and able to adapt to disturbances in it.

There may be a direct link between physical movement and rhythmical expression in music. For example, the shape of a musical phrase moving from low to high or slow to fast is similar to the running-walking-stopping-walking-running patterns of speeding and slowing of bodily movement cycles.

Of course rhythm is not the only musical parameter which has an effect on the body: melody, harmony, and timbre (the tone colour of a particular note) all interact. In the case of timbre it is well reported that certain tone colours create bodily reactions: sharp, metallic sounds or smooth deep sounds, for instance, elicit specific physiological responses. Timbres often also allude to bodily tension. For instance, tightly squeezed string sounds can sound like some sort of bodily pressure. A study was undertaken where people were asked to select their favourite rendition of the Queen of the Night's aria from Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. Amongst the selection of voices there was a synthesized version, perfect in every way: accurate breathing, even frequency of vibrato on the tone, and effortless pitching of the high notes. Yet none of the listeners enjoyed the performance. They all commented that there was no physical effort involved, therefore it sounded ‘disembodied’, and as such was of no interest.

Musical performance

The influence of the performer's tension and effort is not always as positive as in the case of the Queen of the Night's aria. In performance, the adrenaline rush of the performance situation can lead to negative and increasing physiological and psychological effects on the performer: bow tremor or acute self-doubts, for instance. In extreme cases this performance stress can wreck a career if the musician becomes physically and psychologically blocked. Good teaching obviously looks carefully at the interaction of mind and body in the production of a performance, and every effort is made to assure confidence, skill, and control in both. Of course, the benefit from receiving the adrenaline rush of the performance situation is to sharpen the senses and heighten the physical and mental potential of the performer. This enhancing interaction of physiological and psychological responses to performance is often a high source of motivation for individuals to engage with the long hours of mundane practice that are involved in acquiring musical skills.

The production of music obviously requires the development through practice of increasingly refined motor skills, which become in large part automated so that the body is able to execute the performance task without conscious attention having to be paid to every single component of the movement.

Vocal skill development is an interesting example, for there is no obvious visible or easily manipulable body part engaged in the activity. The vocal cords can neither be easily moved into place nor seen, unlike fingers in piano-playing. Trained opera singers learn to use their voices by experimenting with the physical sensations specific vocal sounds make. Once a sensation has been felt and understood, the means by which it is found is then generalized to other areas of vocal production. For instance, a sung ‘ng’ directs the vocal sound to the front of the face, and so into the nasal and sinus resonators. This produces a greater volume of sound. The singer learns to feel through the body where to ‘place’ the voice with this particular ‘ng’ sound, and then is able to transpose the ‘ng’ sensation to all other vocal sounds to achieve evenness in volume irrespective of what kind of vowel or consonant is being sung. Related to this, the pitching of particular notes can be achieved through physical sensation: a very particular feeling of vibrations, in the chest or elsewhere, can be linked directly to the production of a specific musical note.

Musical instruments and musical expression

Anecdotal reports claim that certain physical types are best suited to playing certain kinds of musical instrument. Specific physical features may predispose individuals towards particular instruments (strong front teeth for clarinet playing, large hands for the piano, long arms for the trombone), but there are many highly successful players who do not possess these apparent physical advantages; it is more likely that motivation, commitment, and creativity will determine engagement with an instrument rather than physical features. The deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie is testimony to the possibility of achievement against heavy physical odds. It is certainly the case that individuals can adapt to playing a whole range of instruments. Some children who begin playing very successfully on one musical instrument can completely change the type of instrument (say from brass to strings) and continue to develop performance skills.

Of course, there are many inescapable physical demands on the player in the interface between body and instrument. Added to these are cultural rules about how, when, and why music should be played. Ethnomusicologists have been quick to study this complex relationship, and have shown how the development of the structures of a variety of musical styles can be traced quite directly to ergonomic factors associated with the instruments on which the music has developed. For instance, the English ethnomusicologist John Baily has shown how the music of the dutar, a stringed instrument from Herat, in Afghanistan, evolved from music associated with a neighbouring instrument, and in the process acquired characteristics that were specifically related to the ergonomics of the dutar itself.

In Western art music, the link between body, musical style, and expression has been discussed in many pedagogical texts. In 1834, for example, Balliot, a violinist and professor at the Paris Conservatoire, wrote a treatise on violin playing which suggested that performers could employ different types of body movements to perform music at different musical speeds. He remarked that the adagio speed requires ‘more ample movements’ than the allegro, where notes are ‘tossed off’, whereas in presto there is ‘great physical abandon’. Recent empirical studies have convincingly demonstrated that, beyond technically executing the music on the instrument, information about both structural features of music (harmony, speed, melody climaxes and so on) and expressive intention (what the performer wishes to convey about the music) is also contained in a musician's body movement. The present author has proposed that, although body movements can be imposed onto a performance in the manner suggested by Balliot (and there are indeed a whole range of specific gestures that players use for particular dramatic effect, like saxophone players raising the bell of their instruments to demonstrate great intensity and effort), many of the expressive movements performers make are entirely unconscious. The movements originate in the mental intention to communicate the music rather than to make a specific gesture. In this way the resulting movements can neither be added to nor removed from the performance: rather, they are integral to the execution of its expressive component. Indeed, so intrinsically linked are these movements to the technique of playing that the two become inseparable. For instance, pianists do not move their hands mechanistically from one key position to another. Rather, they move smoothly, often lifting the hand between the two points of key contact, creating an arc gesture as the hand moves through the air. This movement relates directly to the time interval available between the two points of key contact, and to the mood of the sounds that are created.

The body in music

From all the discussion above, it is evident that the body has an integral role in specifying the key components of music itself. As we listen and respond to music, profound effects on our physical/emotional states occur. In performance, the character and style are shaped by the body as the music is produced. But finally, it is worth considering a range of instruments that have been developed in the West in recent years for the purpose of creating music with and through our bodies. These instruments do not require a skilled technique, rather they depend on the natural everyday movements of the body itself. The first is the Theremin, which uses a loudspeaker and radio-frequency oscillators. Changing frequency occurs as the ‘player’ moves his/her hand around a stick-like antenna. The moving hand can create variations in the pitch, volume, and speed of the music being produced. People report that Theremin playing is extremely pleasurable as there is such a direct sound-movement-space link. Other such instruments include Sound Beam, for which a three-dimensional space is filled with sensors that have musical sounds attached to them, so when someone interrupts the sensor path by walking through its beam, a musical sound is created. Again, pitch height, speed and volume, even timbre can be affected by the rate at which the body moves in the beams. The final example of a body instrument is the MIDI glove. Attached to a computer, the glove is filled with sensors which stimulate the production of many different sounds. A single hand gesture can create a huge symphonic swell of multiphonic chords.

Although body instruments like these may not be mass market items yet, perhaps there is a blossoming future for them as they appear to satisfy the human desire to make music of bodily proportions.

Jane W. Davidson