A Martian take on dance

A funny thing happened at 10:45 last night.

A roomful of humans started to move. They didn’t move to anywhere, or move away from anything. They began to move in a strange, stylized way. They didn’t seem to be trying to reach for anything, or to achieve anything, or to perform any perceivable task at all. They were just moving.

Some were moving their entire bodies, expending significant amounts of energy, so much so that in no time at all, jackets were being removed and brows mopped. Some were hardly moving at all, but they were swaying slightly, or nodding their heads. Some were moving alone, others were moving together, sometimes touching. The only people in the room who seemed to be moving for a reason formed a small group, huddled together, who appeared to be manually manipulating a set of tools of varying shape and size, again in synchrony. This little group seemed to be the nucleus of all of this coordinated movement, since when they started and stopped, the whole room did too.

And the strangest thing of all was that everyone was moving together. It was possible to make out a pattern in all of these very varied movements, a constant pulse that everyone seemed to be able to not only detect, but implement through their own bodies. It must have taken enormous effort to coordinate that much movement, across such a vast group, but everywhere people were smiling, relaxed, showing no signs of the strain that such a Herculean cognitive achievement must surely have been costing them. Some even had their eyes closed.

When you put it like that, performing and dancing to music does seem extraordinary. That we can use sound – periodic patterns of energy propagating through the air – to coordinate our actions to such a precise degree, entirely without effort, is baffling. It feels like the most natural thing in the world: even babies do it. Still more baffling is the enjoyment that it brings. The performers last night took a clear pleasure in the whole enterprise: in the precision with which they timed their entries, the tightness of the fit between the bass line and the drum beats, in the exactness with which the singer insinuated his melodies into the little gaps in the texture. They had smiles on their faces, they were looking at each other, eyebrows raised, nodding at each other. And they were looking at us, moving with them, responding to us, modifying their playing as they went to give us more of what they could tell we wanted. All this effortless communication was happening without a word being spoken.

But it is the fact that a great deal of the philosophy of music has proceeded without considering bodies that move together is the most baffling thing of all. Philosophers – some of them, at least – have tended to talk of music as though it were disembodied and abstract, characterising it as patterned sound in some musical empyrean. They tend to talk about music as though we don’t feel it in our sinews, in our blood: in our very bones. Where they have discussed the embodied nature of music, their observations are relegated to footnotes, or to speculative comments at the end of chapters. And they have historically paid little attention to how music gets performed, by players and their instruments. Philosophers are usually good at bringing out the significance of the little details that night be overlooked by others, but it was clear to me at 10:45 last night that sometimes, they can miss out on some very obvious things.

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