last week i had the distinct pleasure of seeing the Stanford Taiko drumming team in action. for ninety minutes, elaine and i were both swept away as they danced, grunted, and beat their drums, both small and large. one might not necessarily think that drumming could remain captivating for that long, but it did. those beats tapped into a primal rhythm center, opened some neural floodgates, and started a pulsing mind-meld in the theater.
it got me to thinking about why i enjoyed this sort of thing, and maybe, more generally, why people do…
i am neither a musicologist nor a cultural anthropologist, but i suspect that the earliest form of instrumental music involved banging on stuff. it doesn’t take a terribly evolved brain to pick up a stick and bash it against the nearest tree or log. the resulting thwack reaffirms your presence to the rest of the world and connects you to it through the chain of mind, body, action, sound, and sensation.
a little experimentation would show that just about anything bashed against anything else would yield similar, but subtly different, results. a thick stick against a sturdy tree might summon the tribe, whereas a tiny twig tap-tap-tapped on your favorite rock would amuse only you. pretty soon, your buddies are picking stuff up and giving it a go themselves, and the next thing you know rhythm (or the most reasonable facsimile possible, given the state of smelly, hairy apes at the time) is born.
this is all pretty simple-minded reasoning, and totally ignores the other (survival-oriented) uses for objects cracked against things. i don’t want to go too far down this evolutionary tributary of inquiry, but what’s the point of banging on stuff? more precisely, why do we find the sounds produced pleasing, stimulating, or both? i mean, if we didn’t, the whole drum-n-bass genre really would have fallen flat, wouldn’t it?
nature has its own rhythms, but it seems that humans took it one step further by creating patterns and structure in beats – we created something not found in nature. it’s something that sets us apart, a distinct evolutionary advantage. survive and procreate – anything that makes this more possible is good.
speaking of sex, the whole rhythm thing seems to tie in with the sexual drum we often beat (so to speak). after all, it’s pretty easy to tie the old in-out-in-out to somebody outside beating sticks on drums around a fire…
maybe it isn’t so tough to understand after all. rhythm, syncopation, beats – they provide an easy way to share a non-verbal experience with others, to stimulate the body and senses in ways not possible via unadulterated mother nature. it brings us together, and not just because of the sexual resonance – because the sounds of ten drums are usually more interesting than the sounds of the lone drummer. unless, of course, you’re talking about mickey hart on the space drums – that’s toooootally different, man.