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A meditation by Joseph Grady delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, June 26, 2011

Music and Community

When I was a kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the things I looked forward to most was family get-togethers at my grandparents’ house down in Los Angeles. It was a very modest house, pretty cramped for a family with 9 boys – my father was the oldest of nine brothers, no sisters – my poor grandmother! But some of my favorite memories are of the family parties in the back room of that little house, where my grandparents, my parents, my many, many uncles plus a few friends and girlfriends, and a few littler kids than me, including my brother, would crowd together and sing songs for hours at a time.

This was in the evening, after the beach, or baseball in a nearby park, or a barbecue. I would get to stay up late and add my little voice to the hootenanny, as my grandmother called it, and watch my uncles or my dad take turns on the 3 or 4 guitars in the room, leading songs that everyone knew and had sung along with many times. Folks songs, Everly Brothers songs, Beatles songs, the Marty Robbins song “El Paso” because the family had started out in El Paso, and others. To me, those evenings were filled with the kind of joy you don’t find everyday, and that you remember for a lifetime.

So I feel a strong personal, emotional association between music, joy and the bonds that tie people together as family and community.

I’m sure many here today have some similar associations, because music and community go together – here in our church, where we’re lucky to have terrific singers and musicians and an amazing music director, and in other churches and places of worship throughout the world, as well as in living rooms and auditoriums, on lawns and in ballrooms, in barracks and around campfires.

Anthropologists tell us there is no such thing, and probably never has been, as a human society without music. Some of the very earliest human-made artifacts we have found around the globe are musical instruments, apparently. Creating and experiencing music, together, is a fundamental aspect of being a person.

When I was first thinking about what I’d like to say about music and community in this service a few weeks ago, something entirely serendipitous happened. (Mina and Eve, that means it was a lucky coincidence.) A friend of mine happened to send me a wonderful book called The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature. It was written by Daniel Levitin – a successful musician and record producer, who went on to become a psychology professor at McGill University. Levitin’s research focuses on music as it relates to perception, psychology and evolution. My friend knew of my love for music and also my interest in cognitive and social science perspectives, since that’s my day job. He didn’t know he was pointing me to answers to questions on my mind right at that moment.

Levitin’s book is filled with fascinating discussions of music and its role in human life, and one of his central premises is that humans are, by nature, a musical species – that our relationship to music is as genetically deep and as important a distinguishing feature, if not more so, than our use of language and tools.

“Music” Levitin says,
“is not simply a distraction or a pastime, but a core element of our identity as a species, an activity that paved the way for more complex behaviors such as language, large-scale cooperative undertakings, and the passing down of important information from one generation to the next.”
As Levitin observes, “We may have had music before we had a word for it.”

Levitin suggests that the inclination to create music, or to enjoy it, may have conferred survival advantages, that led to these tendencies being selected for and programmed into our DNA over time.

What kind of survival advantages?

For one thing, Levitin believes that
“synchronous, coordinated song and movement were what created the strongest bonds between early humans, or protohumans, and these allowed for the formation of larger living groups, and eventually of society as we know it.”
Our closest primate relatives don’t live in groups nearly so large as even the smallest human societies, and Levitin and others believe that rhythm and group singing helped make it possible to form larger successful social groupings.

He refers to experiments showing that “singing together releases oxytocin, a neurochemical now known to be involved in establishing bonds of trust between people.”

His own lab’s studies also show that people are able to synchronize better with each other, for instance in tasks that involves tapping, than with a metronome. Even though the metronome’s perfectly regular and predictable time should, in principle, be easier to synchronize with, people actually do objectively better at locking in with another person’s relatively irregular time, suggesting that rhythm is, in part, an inherently interactive phenomenon, something we do together.

Besides helping create bonds between people, group song creates other survival advantages Levitin discusses – from staying awake in the pre-dawn hours so that a hostile neighboring tribe can’t catch you off guard – a practice observed in at least one traditional society in the Amazon – to helping with coordination of complex tasks, as in various kinds of work songs sung around the world.

For humans of today, Levitin points out, music is often simply experienced as pleasurable. Experiments show that playing music can cause increased levels of dopamine, “the so-called feel-good hormone in the brain” as he says. But there is a deeper story here than mere enjoyment.

As Levitin puts it, “The secretion of feel-good chemicals in the brain in response to playing and listening to music points to an ancient and evolutionarily advantageous connection between music and mood.” He means that because music helps us survive, evolution favored, and created, humans that like music, just as it favored humans that enjoy and seek out certain kinds of foods, and opportunities to reproduce, and who find babies cute and lovable.

As Levitin puts it, we enjoy making and experiencing music “because those ancestors of ours for whom it felt good are the ones who survived and reproduced, passing on this visceral preference.”

Before setting Levitin’s book aside, I want to tell you about one more passage from it. He cites William McNeill, a University of Chicago historian, who wrote a book about the importance of dance and drill in human societies. In the book, McNeill talks about his personal experience in the infantry and here’s part of what he says about his enjoyment of the repetitive drills that he and his fellow infantrymen performed:
“Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved. A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.”
Well, I really recognize that description because for one thing it is a sensation I have experienced right here in this Meeting House during Sunday services. In fact, it’s a way of describing one of the things I come to services for – and maybe some of you do too. That is, for the strong sense of being more than an individual but truly and even primarily a part of something larger and more significant. Part of a community, part of the world.

Thinking about this idea intellectually – about the ways in which my fate depends on yours, about how our choices affect people elsewhere and the web of life all around us – this kind of thinking is important, and one of the things I appreciate about this church is that we know that wise living requires greater understanding, in an intellectual sense, of how the world works. In fact, that’s closely related to my day job, which maybe I’ll talk about some other summer.

But the feeling of connection and unity, the emotional experience of community, the “strange sense of personal enlargement” that William McNeill talks about, happens at a deeper level.

Along with various other practices and rituals we perform here in this church, and elsewhere, music – played, sung or heard as a group – is a powerful tool for creating the vivid experience of being a community, a family. Music can remind us of, and help us directly experience, something important about who we really are and where we come from, as individuals and as human beings. In a way that no mere words can, music can help us achieve some of the perspectives about the world and our place in it that we may come to church looking for.

In my quote “spare time” I have a band that specializes in music for all ages to enjoy together. We’re called Joe’s Backyard Band. Some of you may have heard a few of us at the ice cream social here at the church last September on the front lawn. I was playing the acoustic guitar that my dad played folk songs on for my brother and me when we were kids. The music we play is a combination of songs I write – because I happen to love writing songs – and familiar songs from various styles and traditions, including songs my grandparents knew and loved. While I get great satisfaction from composing songs, and turning them from ideas into things people might actually experience and enjoy, I also love playing “cover songs,” as they say, because I don’t think music at its deepest is really about originality. In fact it’s about things as old as our species, and as basic as the act of coming together as a group to enjoy ourselves.

The last time I saw my grandmother, my father’s mother Anne, the one with nine sons, she was in her 90s in a nursing home in California. She suffered from advanced Alzheimer’s and couldn’t immediately recognize members of the family – but she often had a huge smile on her face. Particularly on that last day, I vividly remember her being very happy, smiling and talking about the great old times, the hootenannies, the songs we used to sing together. I think we even sang one together there at her bedside Those times made her as happy as they made me, and she never forgot them even after she had forgotten so much else. Music was one of her profoundest connections to me, to her family, to the world.