Cross-Cultural Feeling

Looking for some incredible insights about music theory and composition? I cannot recommend Adam Neely’s YouTube Channel enough. For the deliberate practice we discussed in the last blog post, he recommends imagining your forearm is your instrument in order to practice fingerings. Another fascinating video of his that I watched recently breaks down the 9/8 time signature. There’s a lot to unpack; one of the things he goes into is how you can entrain people to the beat with a variety of techniques. Entrainment is when your body synchronizes itself to the beat; in short, it’s what makes us want to dance. Humans seem to be the only animals who experience entrainment as a whole species, barring some exceptions, and the cognitive processes involved in entrainment seem to be present from infancy.

This is remarkable. I’m not a neuroscientist, but to me this seems to suggest that there is something essential about music to human development and experience. We’ve seen this on a cultural level; most cultures I’m aware of have some form of music, and most of it is complex, nuanced and diverse. All of it, though, can be understood as music by humans of any other culture; perhaps that’s because music is so baked into our very brains. Music is the universal language because we all want to dance to it.

Dancing isn’t always easy, though. I’ve never met anyone who can’t at least nod their head to 4/4, but this 9/8 business is a little odd. North American dance music is almost never in this time signature, but according to Neely’s video, many other cultures, including Balkan culture, dance quite easily to 9/8. That’s because they feel the time in quicks and slows; usually in a pattern of quick, quick, quick, slow. Were the pattern four quicks in a row, we would be in 4/4 time, but because the slow is held just a bit longer, we end up in 9/8. Dances often involve 3 steps forward and a slower step back; apparently, this is to symbolize the 4 seasons, with winter being represented by the slow at the end of the cycle.

What’s remarkable about this is that while your body might not immediately entrain to the 9/8 beat, when you learn to do it with another culture’s music, you’ve learned a whole new way of feeling music. More importantly, you’ve learned that culture’s way of feeling music, a way that informs everything from their music’s composition to how they dance. Dancing alongside people is a group is almost always a gesture of love, friendship, and understanding – maybe that’s why we know how to dance from infancy. It connects us.

You might not be ready to go onto the dancefloor and play something yet, but with practice you will be, and that practice will help you connect with people across cultures. Quality and affordable in home music lessons are available, so you can practice feeling the rhythm before playing live.