Tuning in By Zarrar Khuhro

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MUSIC can do a heck of a lot more than sooth the savage breast, and if you don’t believe me just ask the Neanderthals. Of course, you can’t do that because we — or at least our forebears — effectively out-competed and wiped them out ages ago. And now it emerges that music, or specifically drumming, may have played a part in that great replacement. This debate was sparked by a theory that giant basalt mortars, embedded in the bedrock in ancient human settlements in the Galilee, may not have been used to store or crush grain but were in fact used as drums for ritual purposes and/ or for summoning the tribe.

What does that have to do with out-competing the Neanderthals? It’s simple: science has proven that group drumming leads to synchronisation and greater and more effective bonding between members. Think about it: when you’re listening to music the guitar chords may elevate you, the lyrics may trigger emotion but it is the drum that literally gets the heart pumping. Now if you start drumming in a group, provided the beats have a steady tempo, in a short amount of time you find that the heartbeats of the drummers synchronise and that synchronised group is then found to be better at carrying out coordinated activities. In the face of that, the Neanderthals stood no chance.

Given that for millennia our favourite coordinated activity has been war, the use of military drums and music also serves the same purpose: to make groups of men act with a single objective, and in close coordination with one another, to instil a sense of camaraderie and closeness among members who may otherwise not have very much in common. You can see, then, how effective that could be when it comes to achieving military objectives.

Or take religious ceremonies that employ music, singing or chanting: research in Sweden showed that as choir singers sang in unison, their pulses began to speed up and slow down at the same time, in sync with the musical structure of the composition they were singing. Slow chants, which are a near-universal staple of religious intonations, produced the most synchronicity. Again, one can see how this promotes the sense of unity and belonging that we see in religious congregations, from Gregorian chants to Hindu priests chanting ‘om’, all the way to Sufi zikr and so on. Rhythm is key: a group of adults were made to listen to rhythmic music, non-rhythmic music and ‘white noise’ and then were made to perform tasks that required cooperation and coordination. Unsurprisingly, the group that had previously listened to rhythmic music performed best, and it is perhaps in recognition of this that lately corporate trainers have taken to group drumming and singing as a team-building exercise.

All this works because humanity is literally wired for music: just like we have a dedicated part of the brain that recognises and responds to speech, we also have a dedicated neural circuit that is exclusively meant to process music and governs our reactions to it. Going further, studies also show that listening to music and singing together directly impacts neuro-chemicals in the brain that play a role in creating feelings of closeness and connection. And that, believe it or not, can act like an actual painkiller. That’s right, the very act of listening to or performing music, whether it be dancing, singing or drumming etc, leads to the participants having higher pain thresholds due to increased endorphin release in the brain which, when coupled with dopamine, also results in the aforementioned feelings of closeness and connection. No wonder then, that so many people find their workouts to be more effective when they are listening to music.

What’s really intriguing is that the size of the group also matters: larger gro­ups produce lar­ger results, when it comes to feelings of closeness and connection, as anyone who has sung along with the band at a concert can likely testify to.

Of course, this isn’t to say that smaller and more intimate scenarios are ineffective; quite the contrary. Research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology shows that in music therapy sessions, the brains of the patient and the therapist become synchronised, thus enabling greater understanding and interaction between the two and leading to far more productive therapy sessions.

Of course, leave it to humans to find violent and sometimes downright evil applications for music as well: the CIA notably used musical torture to break the will of detainees at places like Guantanamo Bay and other black sites. This involved the repeated playing of ‘culturally unfamiliar’ music like heavy metal and country music to detainees at loud volumes, even using specific tracks as ‘triggers’ to let detainees know that a torture session was about to begin. A discordant note to end on perhaps but then again, this is my composition.