Monkey See Monkey Do

Since I found out I would be working for HeadCount, a number of people have asked me precisely what Headcount “stands for.” Like any self-respecting graduate student, I cite text written by others, in this case our mission statement: “HeadCount is a nonpartisan, non-profit organization dedicated to voter registration and inspiring participation in democracy through the power of music.”

Some people seem skeptical of any reference to a “power of music.” Ontologically, does it exist, and epistemologically, if it does exist, how can anyone be sure of what precisely it is? They cast a malady of cynicism upon the legitimacy of HeadCount’s battle cry: “Dude, do you mean the power of love? Have you heard ‘the news?’ - you suck and so does Huey Lewis.” And to those persons I say, “Shenanigans my good sir. Any band that’s sold 30 million records worldwide is certainly, to use the parlance of our Wu Tang brethren, 'nothing to [procreate] with.' And that’s entirely besides the point.”

An amateur anthropologist of sorts, my thoughts instantly turned to the field of primatology. The theoretical conception of Volker Sommer and other primatologist researchers rests upon the notion that, although the idea may seem abhorrent to some, humans are inherently alike our primate brothers on the evolutionary tree. Apart from pointing to Darwinian phenotypic and Mendelian genotypic traits, Sommer in particular believes that no human behavior is immune from this connection. Perhaps most controversially, Sommer classifies the high degree of violence and sexual assaults committed against children by stepfathers as arising from the same lack of parental investment innately acted upon by male primates in committing sexually selective infanticide. Regardless of how one feels about this hypothesis, few would dispute that researching our closest genetic matches is a worthwhile endeavor with an eye towards a greater grasp of human behavioral science.

In my quest to understand the “power of music,” I delved further into this underlying notion of the innate anthropomorphism of humanity. (Does this help to explain why Disney sells so many plush play-pals?) I was immediately drawn to Desmond Morris’ 1967 opus, "The Naked Ape." In the chapter entitled “Rearing,” Morris analyzes maternal behavior:

. . . 83 per cent of right-handed mothers hold the baby on the left side, but then so do 78 per cent of left-handed mothers . . . the heart is on the left side of the mother’s body…Groups of new-born babies in a hospital nursery were exposed for a considerable time to the recorded sound of a heart-beat at a standard rate of 72 beats per minute. There were nine babies in each group and it was found that one or more of them was crying for 60 per cent of the time when the sound was not switched on, but that this figure fell to only 38 per cent when the heart-beat recording was thumping away . . . Another test was done with slightly older infants at bedtime. In some groups the room was silent, in others recorded lullabies were played. In others a ticking metronome was operating at the heart-beat speed of 72 beats per minute. In still others the heart-beat recording itself was played. The heart-beat group [fell asleep] in half the time it took for any of the other groups . . . the sound of the heart beating is a powerfully calming stimulus . . . a highly specific one.

Morris culminates the argument by bringing us full-circle. Although his assessment of popular music is pretty antiquated ("Far out! The heart is a giant metaphor for microcosm man."), it’s still revelatory with regards to the notion of imprinted dominion and sovereignty:

It may . . . explain why we insist on locating feelings of love in the heart rather than the head . . . It may also explain why mothers rock their babies to lull them to sleep . . . at about the same speed as the heart-beat . . . Nor does it stop there. Right into adult life the phenomenon seems to stay with us. We rock with anguish. We rock back and forth on our feet when we are in a state of conflict . . . Wherever you find insecurity, you are liable to find the comforting heart-beat rhythm in one kind of disguise or another. It is no accident that most folk music and dancing has a syncopated rhythm . . . It is no accident that teenage music has been called ‘rock music’ . . . it is now called ‘beat music’. And what are they singing about?: ‘My heart is broken’, ‘You gave your heart to another’, or ‘My heart belongs to you’.

I dare those who say we should give up on the power of music to stop tapping their feet long enough to make me. I’m no EMT, but I feel the beat, don't you?