Shall We Dance?

I enjoy creating new music in my home studio. Trouble is, who is ever going to hear it? The five people who visit my website? Emily Dickinson, who put her poems in a shoebox, is not one of my heroes. For better or worse, I’d like to find a decent way to get my music out into the world. Not saying I want to be rich and famous, just saying, “Shoebox — no, thanks.”

This is difficult to manage. At the end of This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel Levitin suggests some reasons why.

First, music and dance seem to have evolved together, primarily as fitness displays. (Social bonding may also have played a role.) It’s only in the last couple of hundred years that audiences have been sitting quietly and listening rather than participating.

Second, the recent discovery of “mirror neurons” suggests that what audiences do is more active than we supposed. If you watch a dancer performing a step, for instance, you aren’t just taking in visual information. The neurons in your brain that would be used to execute that same step are firing sympathetically. While you watch, you’re unconsciously rehearsing the dance step. Even if you’re just sitting quietly, this would increase your involvement with the performance and your emotional or social identification with the performer.

With recorded music, none of that is happening. With recorded music, you’re just taking in auditory information. Unless, of course, you’re listening to a Taylor Swift song and you saw Taylor onstage last month, or in a TV show last night. If you saw her, your mirror neurons will be firing as you recall the performance you saw.

Audiences like watching musicians wiggle their fingers in fast, intricate ways. The firing of mirror neurons in such a case is probably minimal, unless you happen to play the same instrument as the performer and have some idea what’s going on. Even if you don’t, you’ll appreciate the performance as a display of virtuosity (i.e., genetic fitness). Pre-recorded music can be edited in various ways, so it’s automatically less impressive to listeners, even when the notes are identical.

Setting up a P.A. in a club and then pressing the Start button won’t impress anyone. Maybe a DJ in a dance club … I don’t know. I don’t go to dance clubs, and I don’t compose dance music. I suspect that DJs do a lot more than just press the Start button. I also suspect that they do a fair amount of fake gyrating to make people think they’re doing more than just pressing the Start button.

And I haven’t even mentioned the sex appeal factor, which is far from irrelevant as a way of captivating an audience. Let’s not worry about that just now.

The question I’m asking myself today is, how can I engage an audience’s appreciation of and vicarious participation in the music/dance process while sitting here in my home studio and manipulating data in the computer? There may not be any easy answers, but I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel. There may be possibilities I haven’t yet discovered.

Hope so. That shoebox sure isn’t calling to me.

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