May 12, 2020

Music and dance require each other: An attempt to explain corporeal activity to cerebral readers

I'm preparing a post on the role of accenting the offbeat in dance rhythms, which will draw examples from dance fever phases over many recurrences of the 15-year excitement cycle. But first there must be a brief review of some general principles on the relationship of music and dance.

The difficult thing about explaining how rhythm and dance work is that it's intuitive for corporeal people, most of whom however are not interested in reading explanations of how things work, an activity that appeals more to cerebral people -- who, for their part, have little sense of rhythm and either don't like dancing, or at best are awkward on the dance floor.

It's like trying to explain how color works in painting -- those who are visually gifted get it intuitively and don't need an explanation, while those who enjoy reading abstractions and "theory" are more likely to be colorblind. Or trying to explain what something tastes like to an intellectual audience that has impaired taste buds, whereas the gourmands understand already without the explanation.

So, in the next post, I'm going to try to bridge the gap. It should make sense to corporeal people -- making them aware of something they already appreciated intuitively. But it'll be simple enough to make sense for the largely cerebral audience of internet readers.

In fact, dance fevers employ a highly simplified, color-by-numbers approach to rhythm, so it won't be complicated to understand. And the models for kinesthetic activities will be simple too: marching in place, doing jumping jacks, pumping your fist, nodding your head, etc., something that even nerds already know how to do and can make a connection with.

For now, a concise overview of the inseparability of music and dance.

Cerebral people do not appreciate that music and dance go together as interconnectedly as smell and taste -- fundamentally, there is no such thing as music that does not provoke a rhythmic bodily response in the audience (of some kind, to some degree). And conversely, there is no such activity as dancing in the absence of music. They're two aspects of the same holistic collective activity, playing-and-dancing-to music.

For completeness, you might separate divine from mundane music, with the rhythmic corporeality of popular music purged from divine music to emphasize its spirituality. However, usually when you hear music that is not even remotely danceable, it's just bland and poorly made, likely by nerds -- not sublime, heavenly "high" music made by spiritual geniuses.

In fairness, perhaps it's ethereal music made by good musicians who are just temporarily collapsed into a refractory state during the vulnerable phase of the excitement cycle. Generally, though, the answer is that they are not good at making music, and they, their audience, and the critics who favor them are cerebrals trying to rationalize the low quality of the music. (Not unlike abstract or conceptual visual art since the mid-20th century.)

And in any case, there's a richly populated overlap zone between mundane and divine music, showing that they are not separate. Namely, where the divine is channeled through a shaman, or some similar leader of a spirit possession cult. This figure is not a mundane layman (given to popular music), but neither is he an exalted high priest in a highly stratified religious group (given to divine music). He occupies a level of social complexity in between, and the music that accompanies his performance is both divine and rhythmically corporeal at the same time. His ritual naturally incorporates dancing as well as music.

Various evangelical revival movements within modern Western Christianity share these features of shamanic and spirit possession religions, such as the Shakers and the Appalachian snake handlers. The religious organization is less highly stratified, and their weekly rituals incorporate energetic dancing as well as music.

It's also a mistake to equate "non-corporeal" or even "anti-corporeal" with what is "spiritual" or "divine". That only applies to some kinds of religion, most notably today the off-shoots of Puritanical Protestantism, but also the self-flagellating strains of Catholicism, and Eastern religions like Buddhism.

It is contradicted by religions where the divine is thoroughly corporeal, although perhaps of a different kind of material substance than what we experience in our everyday mundane lives, and in which our corporeal experiences today are preparing us for our corporeal experiences of the afterlife. The goal is not to negate or denigrate the body, but to prepare it for a somewhat different kind of material reality. That includes major growth religions like Mormonism, but also historically widespread ones like Zoroastrianism.

So, music -- especially its rhythmic component -- is designed to get the audience dancing, i.e. moving their bodies in time with what they're hearing. No specific kind of dancing is implied, as each kind of music has its own style of dancing, some more restrained and some more energetic. It could be members of a military marching to music played by the military band, or it could be 20-somethings shaking their bodies to attract the opposite sex in nightclubs.

We're only looking at Western pop music since 1960, and the kinds of dances and the places where its audiences gather to dance, for three reasons: it's the most salient, it extends far enough back to trace repeating cycles, and it continues into the present to make it topical.


  1. Do you see COVID-19 as something that could permanently entrench a cocooned culture or do you think the momentum caused by the shift away from quarantines will do the opposite?

  2. The fact that there's any restlessness to end the quarantine shows that the pandemic is not altering people's psychology toward more cocooning.

    If it had struck in 2018, I think most people would've been fine hunkering down in their social-emotional refractory state.

    But we were just starting to come out of our shells when the pandemic hit, and although people have tolerated it for a little while, the horse has already left the barn -- we're in the restless warm-up phase and want to be out and about, mingling and interacting.

    Bad news for public health, of course. Look at how much worse AIDS was because it began in an outgoing phase ('60s - '80s), rather than in a cocooning phase ('30s to '50s, or '90s to present).

  3. Divine music of the well-written variety is going to invoke a corporeal response, even if it’s not a rhythmic one. The feeling of bodily ecstasy, that urge to close your eyes, raise your arms to the heavens, float on your toes, and just drift along to the melody.

  4. Randall Collins' wrote in his book on violence some relevant material on how the importance of dancing has fluctuated in the history of American popular music. I just blogged that in response here.

  5. Perhaps even more relevant would be Kevin Simler's take on Music in Human Evolution.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."