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The Natural Clock: On the Elusive Origin of Groove


The Natural Clock: On the Elusive Origin of Groove

Nate Umbanhowar

Feature by Nate Umbanhowar

Periodicity is inherent to human life. Rhythmic processes ensnare the otherwise untameable continuum of time, allowing us to partition, measure, and allocate it. Circa 1300, medieval mechanics conjured the escapement, a device which served to interrupt the fall of a weight at regular intervals. This mechanism came to constitute the crux of the modern clock, severing the flow of time into the predetermined parcels of seconds, minutes, hours. The arrival of the clock in Europe introduced the populace to synchrony: Businesses took advantage of its perpetual rhythm to align workers into shifts, measuring their output and efficiency in the toil for currency. Gone were the days of waking and sleeping by the sun, of harvesting by the seasons, and working till the work was done. Since its inception, the clock has bound lives to a precise and regular rhythm, often to the point of constriction.

Yet we find solace in a more sophisticated kind of rhythm - that of music. Adrift in sound, the mind departs from routine and schedule. Suspension in song carries a magic like little else. However, though music appreciation is intuitive, the cause of it is less so. Evolutionary musicology, the study of music and its associated psychological mechanisms as an evolutionary factor, offers tentative answers. Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard, theorized in his 1997 book How the Mind Works that music is “auditory cheesecake.” That is, the flavors of music stimulate the palate of various important parts of the brain such as the language center, the auditory cortex (which detects emotions in human cries and speech), and the motor control system, which provides biological rhythm to the muscles in activities such as walking. Others place music as a simple courtship mechanism, used primarily by young males to demonstrate their suitability as a mate: Music, when combined with dance, is a strong display of physical and mental vitality. Another view characterizes music as a precursor to language, that worked to synchronize large groups in the same manner as the clock. However, none of these theories seem to provide a comprehensive view of the origins of rhythmic sensibility. Where do we get our sense of groove, of rhythmic feeling?

Evolutionary theory and biology do indeed offer a foundation for rhythmic perception. Neural circuits called Central Pattern Generators are integral to biological function, providing the impulses that generate periodic behaviors such as breathing, pumping of blood, swallowing, and walking. One notable theory posits that our sense of rhythm came from the need to separate these patterns from the impulses of the outside world. As hunter-gatherers, humans spent much time walking and running as they searched for their next meal. This required deft tracking skills, using the eyes and ears to stalk prey. Without proper biological systems, the pounding of feet or beating of the heart can drown out key signals. Thus, researchers believe that we developed a sense of rhythm to anticipate these inner disturbances, allowing us to focus on sensory clues more important to getting our next meal. Though this in some capacity explains the visceral nature of rhythm, it offers no higher-order purpose, no description of rhythmic function beyond basic mammalian impulse.

One may be found in connection to our relationship with time. Tied to the ticking of the clock, modern life provides constant reminders of our own mortality. We speak of time as a limited resource, as a currency, such as when we say, “You are wasting my time!”, “I spent too much time there,” or “Thank you for your time.” This time is measured in units of harsh regularity, that keenly bind us to schedule, routine, and accomplishment. In musical rhythm, however, we make something entirely irregular. Each musician adds their own touch to a written beat, spacing notes so as to break the chains of mechanical clock-like progression. This touch is the origin of the groove of jazz and its derivatives and the ebb and flow of tempo in classical. These are rhythms to move the brain, soul and body. As a function of creative thought, they are recognized by tracing our biological rhythms but captivate in deviating from them. Unlike a heartbeat, the sound of which might be heard in all moments of life but is obscured by the brain to allow the senses to receive new information, musical rhythms draw the mind’s attention, celebrating a departure from biological regularity. In creating these patterns, musicians adorn the unfailing periodicity of the clock with a human glow, one that transforms the journey of human existence from a strict march to a soaring dance. Let’s groove.