Monday, June 19, 2017

Drumming and Normativity

Perhaps the first sound we ever hear is our mother's heartbeat, and the last thing we hear may be our own.  The heartbeat's tempo, regularity, and  its steady repetition is what sets the pace for all of the many things that we do in our lives.  That beat becomes slow and steady when we fall asleep, but in times of stress the heart beats faster to facilitate the incredible bursts of energy that may be required to get us out of danger.

Analogous to  the way that the heart pumps blood to the muscles and makes action possible, we can say that the drum beat drives the music forward.  The softer, the quieter the drums, the more laid back the music.  The louder and more insistent the drums the higher the energy  becomes.   The drums and percussion are the instruments most felt by the entire body.  We instinctively move to the beat of a drum, we can't help it.     

But the heart, together with all the other organs in the body, is a team player.  So too, the drums.  In drumming, control is everything.  As a drummer I have the power to command and overwhelm the entire band, but, if I exercise that power and drown them out I become persona non grata.

If I were a chimpanzee like Jane Goodall’s “Mike”,  who became the alpha dominant by capitalizing on the noise and confusion caused by his clanging and banging empty fifty gallon oil drums together, then I could dominate all the apes around me with my awesome drum set.  But humans usually don’t tolerate that kind of domination.  I would get absolutely nowhere with any band I can think of, unless I exercised restraint, and only quickened the tempo or raised the volume when the composer, conductor, or the other musicians agreed that it was appropriate.

There is something about percussion that mirrors normativity itself.  The huge Silverback Gorilla who beats his chest, the alpha male chimpanzee who slams a tree branch against the ground - these close relatives of ours maintain their absolute dominance by bluffing with loud percussive sounds that signal their power and ambition without the necessity of having to fight it out.

We can reproduce a similar kind of compulsion and power with percussion instruments.  The thunder of Tympanies, the deep and explosive sound of  Gongs, the clarity and sustaining sound of a huge Bell - they all have the power to break us out of our trajectories, to refocus our attention, to summon us.

Humans, unlike the apes and other animals, work together through agreement and cooperation and resist overt domination.  This is reflected in music, especially in the relation between the percussion section and the rest of the band.  The drummer sets the pace, but he’s got to be in sync with the other players.  The drumbeat drives the music forward, but the drummer has to fit-in with everybody else, constraining his volume, keeping the tempo steady, but continually facilitating and reflecting the energy level of the other musicians at the same time.  

Birds have beautiful, but mostly solitary songs, wolves howl together, elephants trumpet, but animals never achieve a cumulative  body of knowledge and culture the way humans do.  I believe that the key to this difference is in normativity,  our collective adherence to  rules.

 Music is a collective human phenomenon. It’s possible to play music by yourself, but it really requires a collectivity to get it off the ground - to compose music, to build up a repertoire of songs, to form styles and traditions,  to produce musical instruments, to train musicians, to build  audiences and to make  musical performance possible.

Music itself, like all other human pursuits, is rule-governed.  It is the rules of music, the scales, harmonies, time signatures, tempos, and controlled dynamics that allow for such creativity and cooperation.  But wait, there’s more!   There is another way that music reflects human life, and is the reason why music is so emotionally appealing.  

Music reflects the ceaseless changing activity that comprises life. Think of what a Beethoven Symphony and ongoing life have in common.   Things happen, events unfold, sometimes slowly, other times quickly;  there are different themes that are introduced by different individuals;  some of these themes drop out, but some get stronger as more people join in.  Things happen, and different things coalesce;  they can change dramatically, they can evolve in expected or unexpected ways;  themes that had dropped out previously can reappear and join in with the chorus. The music can build and build, creating a tension and then release as the musical phrasing reaches a climax and frames an ending.

Not all music is as complex as a Beethoven symphony, but it is easy to see how tempos, patterns,  changes, progressions, transformations, and repetitions in music can evoke our experience of everyday life.  Music may be rule-governed, but it’s largely the way that music moves our bodies and interacts with and mirrors our feelings that forms the basis of its appeal.

Getting back to drumming, there’s a strong connection between certain time signatures such as 2/4 and walking.  Left right, left right, maps onto one two, one two,  which is why drumming is so prominent in marches.  When two people walk together they  often walk in unison.  It’s often done unconsciously, in fact it is a neurological phenomenon called “entrainment”.   This can be seen in a more deliberate fashion, in military marches, and it is definitely facilitated by drumming. Entrainment can have a powerful emotional effect on us, partly because when it is happening we perceive the group acting as a single organism.  

Drumming can also induce trance, sometimes because of the monotony of some repetitive beats and sometimes because, when one hears two complex beats simultaneously, one can either hear the two beats in combination, which is the usual way, or, more interestingly,  one’s focus can be suspended between the two beats, unable to choose one over the other -  at which point one enters a trance. How do I know this?  Because I have inadvertantly put myself into a trance practicing drumming exercises.

Note the paradoxical consequence that drumming can either induce entrainment and a powerful sense of unity or, alternately, the disassociation of trance.  My sense is that both these phenomena have to do with the connection of drumming with normativity.  To begin with, the stark simplicity of drumming is a lot like the binary opposition in normative concepts such as good/bad and right/wrong.  

The simplicity of drumming, it’s sharp definition and repetitiveness, frames the music into a regular series of parts which we call “the beat”, each with a brief rise in tension, then a climax and dissipation.  This framework repeats itself over and over throughout many songs.

I want to say that normativity frames all human social activity, in the sense that in any common activity we feel compelled to act in certain ways, independently of our particular desires.  The Contemporary Philosopher John Searle refers to this as the fact that only humans have “desire-independent reasons.”   

We keep our promises, fulfill our obligations, and do our duty, basically because we live in society and we want to keep living in society. There is something compelling when we feel an “ought”, that we feel we ought to do something, or when we see a wrong, and feel strongly that it should be publicized and  punished. Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher of the enlightenment brought out the specifically universal quality of morality in his concept of “the categorical imperative,”  that is, that moral rules apply to everyone,  that we cannot absent ourselves from this kind of rule without being excluded from society.  This also shows that contrary to Utilitarianism, morality is irreducibly  social and cannot consist of simply adding up individual people’s needs and preferences.

   Because Kant wanted to make human reason autonomous and base everything on this autonomy he excluded emotion from his system.  That was an unfortunate mistake, because it reflects a basic misunderstanding of the nature of normativity.

Kant’s autonomy turns out to be a mirage because reason by itself has no compulsion whatsoever.  It needs emotion to supply a sense of direction, an ought.  But, of course, any emotion is caught up in some immediate and particular circumstance.  We are angry or sad about a particular situation.  How can morality make a claim to being universal if it has to involve emotions that are about particular situations?  The answer lies in the way that collective commitment is necessary for morality to get off the ground.

One thing that is absent from both Kant and the Utilitarians is the importance of enforcement.  But, the 17 Century British philosopher Hobbes saw it.  In his great work Leviathan, Hobbes stated:  “Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”

Part of normativity, the part which Kant emphasized,  is its universal inclusion - everybody commits to moral rules and no-one is excluded unless everyone agrees that they should be. That universality is important, but it is only half the story.  Besides our collective commitment to follow the moral rules the moral force also resides in our collective commitment to enforce the rules, with the  possibility of different degrees of exclusion, with the ultimate degree being execution.


The categorical imperative is really a social commitment to hold to and enforce  universal standards of conduct.  By this commitment we have replaced sheer animal dominance with morality and the rule of law.  I am reminded of this every time I play the drums in a band.  Each band member, by committing  to play in this particular band, constrains his or her playing to be in sync with the rest of the band.  This is  how music is kept alive, how it is created and re-created.  If any other group of animals could collectively recreate a piece of music, it would be strong evidence of rule-governance - of normativity in another species.  

1 comment:

  1. Your comment from Hobbes reminds me of a definition of "language" I once heard - A language is a dialect with an army. So, yes, enforcement is a major component of any functioning system. In my world of microprocessors, there is no need for sensors, if there are no actuators.

    This said, I find today's political debates interesting because of the emphasis being placed on truth (or lack thereof). There are many questions that can be asked about the truthfulness of statements. Indeed, geographers may find it appealing to look at the distribution of truth throughout the world, and historians about its transformation over time. However, these would be meaningless exercises. Truths transmute.

    One should not be particularly concerned that a politician lies, because everyone does. People don't even know when they are lying. Take phlogiston as an example. It reigned supreme as an explanation for combustion from 1667 when Becher proposed it, until it was denounced by Lavoisier in the 1780s.

    A more important issue than what people do or don't do with their words, is what they do or don't do with their actions. We want actions to be just, or at least not unjust.

    I find it amazing that the American political debate has devolved to a discussion of the truth of statements, rather than focusing on the justice of political actions.

    It is only at this point that I can comment on drumming. In a silent world I imagine that the sound of a heartbeat would seem so loud and oppressive that it would drive its producer to insanity. Drumming becomes an acceptable preoccupation only because we live in a world filled with sound.

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