Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Psychology of Musicality


Musicians and dancers from the Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Nebamun

What came first, dance or music?

What do you think?

Really, I mean, stop and think before reading on – which came first in the world – dance or music?


[This bracketed, fine-print sentence is to check if you really made a decision. :-) ]

Now, ask yourself – which comes first for you? Do you dance spontaneously or does music move you to dance? For example, do you keep dancing when the DJ suddenly has sound problems.  Suddenly there is silence.  We were all in the middle of a wonderful vals cruzado.  You know the music, so you just keep on dancing? Or silence is okay, because dance and then music?  To tell you the truth, I keep on singing the song to my partner and I don't stop.  But I notice that most everyone else stops dead in their tracks.

I was surprised that more than 50% of the people I asked said, “dance was first.” Beginners and advanced dancers – it did not matter – the answer was around 50/50.  I started this project back in 2009, and decided to finish this blog just this week.  Nothing has changed, I have asked anew and it still is about 50/50.  Actually the last three people I asked we sure it was dance that started first.  These are usually strong opinions.  Rarely do I hear, "Well, I don't really know."

Interesting sociological studies and studies of the brain confirm that the human brain is unique in few things from animal brains, but the ability to make music and especially the automatic motoric response (dance) to music is unique to humans among mammals. Earlier sociologists posited that perhaps dancing came about through social mores or pressures, but it is now known to show up early in infants; dancing is very human.  Dance is the normal response to music, which is clearly innate and not learned.  (Song birds are communicating with a limited "vocabulary" and are not creating or improvising music -- the same with whales and other animals.  We music-creatures have anthropomorphized animal communications, calling them "songs.")

Music has not always come first.  Films, for example, came first, and then live music was added. Fireworks shows came first and then the idea of adding music came later. Not so with dance! Music came first. Somebody started slapping a rock or hitting two pieces of wood together or singing. Then people started moving to it.  Perhaps some people say that dance comes first because drumming is not considered music to them.  However, rhythm is the first element of three that make up music in this order of importance are: Rhythm, melody and harmony.  In fact of the three elements, rhythm is primary and melody and harmony are secondary, needing rhythm themselves to truly become music.

Why is the music-before-dance issue important for dance teachers? 
Believing that dance came first causes some very important problems for students. The cart in front of the horse complicates things. Sure it may work, but something is wrong.

Some talented dancers (teachers) may be pretty good at running the cart in front of the horse in their mind, but their students and less-talented dancers will suffer from this backward, dance-before-music philosophy.

 Musicality in dance is a simple thing if you consider that music is making you do what you do. Some children even feel "forced" to dance when certain music is playing. They might want to stop dance, and cry, "Turn off the music, Mommy!"  If dance comes first then a dancer must force themselves (like a trained monkey or elephant) to hear and dance to the music. Instead we need to get back to just being as a child and let it happen--let the music move us. Technique will come much easier as the addendum to letting the brain does well without psychological obstacles to dance.

Psychological Obstacles to Musicality
Much of our lack of musicality is psychological.  From a human development model, here are the stages of how we fall away from our natural talent to be musical in our bodies as a response to music that "moves" us:
  • As infants and then toddlers we were "dialed in" to music. Please read this link.  People laughed and we had fun.  Music "forces" us to move without any thought.  But we quickly learn that we cannot just dance anytime or anywhere.  Suddenly our parents are upset when we start dancing at our older sister's piano recital.
  • Our early school experience taught us that we must restrain ourselves in certain settings, such as church or school from feeling/dancing to music.  Even in music class we may be told not to dance.
  • In middle school, many of us trained each other not respond to music the way we feel it for fear of being laughed at or not being "cool."  (This is not true in many cultures, of course. Latin American school experience is much different than cultures highly influenced by Europe.  The Euro-centric school experience demands restraint from the desire to move to music -- except perhaps in a dance class and with the proper acceptable movements for the music being played.)
  • As adults we must maintain control at work and in public settings because only children, crazy or inebriated people dance to music in public.  
Here's an example in my own life:  I have played both drums and bass in Pentecostal churches and African-American churches, and people are indeed dancing in the aisles!  But I NEVER would have danced in the church I grew up in.  Holy Mother of God, sit down!  I have properly learned to block my innate desire to move to the music.  Think about how you have learned to "control yourself" from your innate musicality.


Become as a child
Please tell me, do you think this baby (below video clip) took extensive training in musicality?  No!  He just hasn't been disconnected from the very uniquely human trait of being "forced" to move to the music. This toddler doesn't need musicality lesson nor technique for musicality because music comes first, and it starts in the unique wiring in the human brain.  Be prepared to laugh and (if noone is looking) stand up and dance with him!

[No need to watch the entire video, you'll get the point very quickly.]


There was a great theologian with a side-job as a carpenter who once said, "You must become as a child to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven."  And so it is with tango -- to dance in your own heaven-on-earth. 


The Psychology of Musicality part 2 will show that movement comes before music, which seems to contradict my conclusion above, but -- you guessed it -- movement preceding music only confirms that music is primary and internal.


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