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Lenny Pickett, no longer in Tower of Power, but still cool

Tower of Power was my band in high school. One reason was the insanely tight horn section, including SNL frontman Lenny Pickett. But another was the music itself.

It was cool.

I was also a marching band guy, and I always liked me some Sousa marches, though not for the same reasons I liked Tower. Sousa has horns, and they might be tight, but nobody would call “Stars and Stripes Forever” cool. Strong maybe, proud, confident, celebratory — but cool doesn’t enter into it.

Doesn’t matter if you like a piece of music or not. I hate certain kinds of jazz, for example, while still recognizing that they exist in the wheelhouse of “cool.” And I’ve always wondered what accounts for that instantly recognizable quality.

Now I think I’ve found it.

A few posts ago I mentioned a hideously wrongheaded passage about dissonance from the book This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin. The rest of the book was entirely rightheaded — and one section in particular blew my mind.

I double-majored in music and physical anthropology, so any time I trip over a credible link between music and evolution, there is much rejoicing. In one chapter, Levitin explores a fascinating function of the cerebellum that crosses that very bridge: timekeeping.

The cerebellum is one of the oldest structures in the brain, so any adaptive features located there are likely to have deep evolutionary advantages. They are likely, in other words, to benefit not only humans, but the common ancestors we share with a whole lot of other creatures.

The cerebellum is mostly about coordinating movement, but researchers have also found it getting busy when we listen to music. Long story short, it seems to correlate to the pleasure (or lack) that we get from the rhythm in a song. As a Salon article a few years back put it,

When a song begins, Levitin says, the cerebellum, which keeps time in the brain, “synchronizes” itself to the beat. Part of the pleasure we find in music is the result of something like a guessing game that the brain then plays with itself as the beat continues. The cerebellum attempts to predict where beats will occur. Music sounds exciting when our brains guess the right beat, but a song becomes really interesting when it violates the expectation in some surprising way — what Levitin calls “a sort of musical joke that we’re all in on.” Music, Levitin writes, “breathes, speeds up, and slows down just as the real world does, and our cerebellum finds pleasure in adjusting itself to stay synchronized.”

That’s great. But why would this ability have evolved? Why does evolution care what music you like?

Honey…evolution doesn’t give a damn about you personally, much less what kind of music makes your weenie wiggle. But on the population and species level, it does tend to favor abilities that keep an organism alive a little longer. One of those is the ability to detect small changes in the environment, because change can indicate danger. Here’s Levitin:

Our visual system, while endowed with a capacity to see millions of colors and to see in the dark when illumination is as dim as one photon in a million, is most sensitive to sudden change….We’ve all had the experience of an insect landing on our neck and we instinctively slap it—our touch system noticed an extremely subtle change in pressure on our skin….But sounds typically trigger the greatest startle reactions. A sudden noise causes us to jump out of our seats, to turn out heads, to duck, or to cover our ears.

The auditory startle is the fastest and arguably the most important of our startle responses. This makes sense: In the world we live in, surrounded by a blanket of atmosphere, the sudden movement of an object—particularly a large one—causes an air disturbance. This movement of air molecules is perceived by us as sound….

Related to the startle reflex, and to the auditory system’s exquisite sensitivity to change, is the habituation circuit. If your refrigerator has a hum, you get so used to it that you no longer notice it—that is habituation. A rat sleeping in his hole in the ground hears a loud noise above. This could be the footstep of a predator, and he should rightly startle. But it could also be the sound of a branch blowing in the wind, hitting the ground above him more or less rhythmically. If, after one or two dozen taps of the branch against the roof of his house, he finds he is in no danger, he should ignore these sounds, realizing that they are no threat. If the intensity or frequency should change, this indicates that environmental conditions have changed and that he should start to notice….Habituation is an important and necessary process to separate the threatening from the nonthreatening. The cerebellum acts as something of a timekeeper.

Our cerebellar timekeeper determines how regular a sound is. If it stays predictable — dripping water, chirping crickets — we feel confident and secure. If it becomes less predictable or changes in intensity, we feel unsettled, possibly threatened.


The Thunderer, John Philip Sousa

The beats are regular. Your cerebellum is tapping its foot, predicting every beat, right on the money. It makes you feel safe, confident, in control. It’s a great performance of a great march, but no one would call it cool.

Then there’s this…hold me…

YouTube video

“Sacrificial Dance” from The Rite of Spring, Igor Stravinsky

In addition to intense dissonance, it’s jerky and angular, with completely unpredictable rhythms and sudden changes in intensity — the musical embodiment of anxiety and terror. And it bloody well should be — a sacrificial virgin is dancing herself to death on a fire, for God’s sake. Your cerebellum is freaked out by the utter inability to predict the next note. The music is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, but you wouldn’t call it cool.

The music we usually identify as cool splits the difference, combining a steady predictable beat with unpredictable departures from that beat. It’s flirting with the remote sense of danger without actually endangering you. Once again, a rollercoaster analogy works perfectly: the feeling of being tossed around without actually getting killed can be thrilling.

If music establishes a beat, then throws you around a bit — backbeat accents, unexpected hits around the beat, changing patterns — it gives a little thrill to your cerebellar timekeeper, tickling that part of you that listens for the irregular sounds of danger, then pulling you back to the safety of a steady beat before dangling you over the cliff again.

Let’s all agree that “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder is cool. Listen to how the drums set a metronome-steady beat for the first 10 seconds. Then that funky clavinet comes in, a mix of on-beat and jerky staccato syncopations. By the time the horns are in, we have layers of offbeat counterpoint dancing around the steady beat, this complicated tapestry of sound:

YouTube video

In the end, the proof is in the ruining. If you want to strip all of the cool out of a cool song, make it safe. Take every unpredictable syncopation and put it on the beat, like every middle school arrangement of every popular song:

Dude. Not cool.

Bonus cool: My favorite song in high school

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.