August 14, 2010
New Studies: Music Makes People Nicer
David Berreby on August 13, 2010, 12:14 PM
Birds do it. Bees do it. But primate species don't sing and dance, except for Homo sapiens. Why is music-making part of human nature, then? Why do we enjoy singing in three-part harmony or clapping together in church, which wouldn't appeal for a single second to our chimp or orangutan cousins? This paper proposes an explanation: Music, it says, makes little kids nicer. Maybe it evolved because it made our ancestors more cooperative, and hence more successful.
Sebastian Kirschner and Michael Tomasello recruited 96 four-year-olds from German day care centers and set them to playing games in pairs. Some played musical instruments and sang with the experimenter, while others played the same game, but without music. A later game was set up so that one child needed help from the other, who had to choose whether to aid the partner or keep playing.
Kids who had played music together were considerably more likely to help, the authors report (a pdf of the entire paper, which details their ingenious experimental methods, is here). Perhaps, Kirschner and Tomasello write, music evolved because it focuses attention on collective goals, and so satisfies an innate human desire to be "in sync."
That's in line with this finding, from an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Hospitality Management, which reports that when restaurants offer background music —at least, nice background music in the form of songs with "prosocial lyrics"—customers leave bigger tips. (Credit to Tom Jacobs for reporting on it.)
Kirschner, S., & Tomasello, M. (2010). Joint music making promotes prosocial behavior in 4-year-old children??? Evolution and Human Behavior DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2010.04.004
Jacob, C., Guéguen, N., & Boulbry, G. (2010). Effects of songs with prosocial lyrics on tipping behavior in a restaurant International Journal of Hospitality Management, 29 (4), 761-763 DOI: 10.1016/j.ijhm.2010.02.004
June 16, 2010
Anyone who knows me knows that I have a small problem with music. I am no musician, couldn't sing you the top note of a chord if it hit me in the head. But I get hypnotized by music-- get obliterated by the ordering of time and sound. I believe it is inherent: music is encoded in the Russian genome.
This losing of my intelligence and self-control near music caused untold idiocy and pain to self and others in my younger years. I distinctly remember a very young Sharyn O'Mara, now a dean at an art school, tracking me down to some music den in Providence in the early hours of the morning, after noticing that I had gone missing from the grad design studio, twenty years ago.
But now that I am mature I have developed some excellent coping skills for this music problem. I'm generally ok if I'm careful and avoid talented people and don't listen too closely to things. Rarely now do I hear something or someone that stops cerebration cold and turns me into a hypnotized blob. And this is good.
In a recent chapter of my past, it was incumbent upon me to show up fairly regularly at area open mics in order to show support for a musician friend. I wasn't very good at being audience to most of these half-baked efforts, but I tried. Anyway, many open mics and many coffeehouse concerts by aspiring artists went past my ears for years. I really don't remember any of them except one.
I showed up to a coffeehouse one evening, got a coffee, said hi to a few people, sat down in the gathering audience, saw a person named Eric Miller standing at the microphone, heard the first few notes of his opener, and promptly lost my brain. It was Providence all over again. The music-response gene went active. Thank goodness there were people there to drag me out at the end of his set.
Eric is a real singer/songwriter. His are not the uncontrolled musings of an unformed consciousness. He plays acoustic: He knows how to write and he knows what he is writing about. He has just the kind of dark voice suitable for his own lyrics, and those lyrics are sometimes rollicking, sometimes sweet, sometimes bittersweet. His arrangements are fearless. And he's always on top of his music, in control of it, making it work for him.
Well, what can I say. That night I wanted to buy a CD. But, unlike everyone else I had heard in those years, he did not have one for sale. He told me he felt he wasn't ready to make one, that he needed to work more--hone his skill, write more. In this day of instant CDs, in this day of instant belief in the value of one's own artistic creations, when do you hear someone say that? So a couple years have passed. Yesterday I opened my mailbox to find "There Is Nothing for You Here," Eric Miller's first CD. (www.ericmillersongs.com) It is rounded, mature, thought-through: beautiful. He is ready: It is time.
July 27, 2009
You should have been there on Saturday night. Old hands in Providence refuse to go down to the city center on the nights when the city lights all the bonfires in the middle of the river and puts on block parties all around the town. I like the combination of fire and water-- I always go. Usually to sit mesmerized watching the firelight, back to a cement post, crowds brushing along behind me.
Sometime during the day, my friend Kirk left a message on my cell mentioning that he would be playing at Steeple Street that evening, should I want to come by. Well, 3 Steeple Street is a little bar where Kirk sometimes plays, and so I thought I knew what I was getting into when I headed for the place around nine.
When I turned the corner it became clear that in fact Kirk and his quintet were playing IN Steeple Street. The street was blocked off, Verizon had erected a huge crimson "Verizon Jazz Stage," with tall curtains and patterned projections on the buildings behind it. As for audience: I stopped counting at four hundred people.
Four hundred people sitting there, listening.
Jazz players my age are either dead or good. If they live through the drugs and the alcohol, they get better. It is such an arcane music, such a backwater and so unpromotable that you can be sure that jazz players are not playing for the stardom. They play to play.
Kirk is able to do things with sixteenth notes that I never heard him do in the past. The thing that hit me most was the complete lack of ego in his playing-- a noticeable lack of marketing the current CD or trumpeting the next engagement. They played, they listened to each other, Kirk sang. They played Jerome Kern and Gershwin and Monk.
Surrounded by church steeples, bridges, river water and firelight, the music drifted up into the stars. The band so amazingly on, the quintet in such mental tune-- Kirk's signals no more than a quick trace in the air-- it all seemed like the play of one mind, one entity.
June 21, 2009
I don’t remember noticing the summer solstice in my years in New York. Summer is summer there. It’s hot, you wear summer clothes, you crank the air conditioning in the bedroom, the weather changes at the end of September and by October it’s all over, with never a thought given to the lengthening of the days, the short nights. But up here in the Northwest we feel the longest day of the year. For a few weeks now I've been aware of the sun--it’s been slamming into the bedroom at 4:00 in the morning. It's been straining for its northernmost point like a dog on a leash.
On the solstice, parties break out. We pile up wood and light fires: The primal pyromania. Perhaps we’re aware of the longest day here because the time between the damp fog of Spring and the damp fog of Fall is so short. Maybe fewer buildings block our long view, or maybe the sky is closer. At this time of year, outside, at night, you'll feel the planet’s silent arcing through space.
Last night I found myself sitting outside at 10:30 in the half-light, listening to music in the guttering glow of candles. Someone picked up a guitar. Harmonies drifted from the tree-shadows. The fiddler, he now steps to the road. Cedars tall and silent behind us, etched black on silver. Blessed is the light of long days.
June 14, 2009
Urged on to attendance while standing in the grocery line at T and C, I showed up at Seabold Hall last night to listen to the duo Brent Grossman and Jeremy Rothbaum. The specialty here is fast, hot versions of roots and blues music standards and Rothbaum compositions. Separately, both musicians have great personal appeal and a certain throw-away irony that comes as refreshment to an island audience often clutched in the grip of Very Serious and Sensitive Folk Music. Grossman and Rothbaum are smart, funny and talented and put on a great show.
Although both musicians are multi-instrumental, in this performance Jeremy limited himself to accordion and piano, while Grossman provided a one-man rhythm section on snare-drum, with occasional bouts of fingerpicking. Wonderful take-downs and thought-through song endings gave the show crispness.
Oddly, the highpoint came in a cover of a Hank Williams song, where Rothbaum delivered a haunting, night-sky-and-stars-loneliness yodel the likes of which I have never heard in all my years of yodel-listening. Left me waiting for him to do it again. Which he finally did, even better. That's a first for me.
The duo could benefit from a refreshment of material-- they were selling a CD produced in 1992-- and a slowing of the pace on occasion. "Long Black Veil" was played at such a fast tempo that the beauty of the tune was obscured, as was the natural swing of Toussaint's "Brickyard Blues." With all that humor and irony, a sincere ballad or two would act like a spark of orange tile in a wall of blue and white mosaic. But all in all, a marvelous show. I may need that yodel as a download.