Groove on my elephant brothers

I’m on the final chunk of the book “Music, Language, and the Brain” and it’s revealing its treasures faster than a French whore undressing in your hotel room. The final section of the book discusses the human ability to perceive a beat e.g. our ability to tap in time with a song. This is so innate that we probably don’t think about it much, but it’s a skill lost on most animals. The book argues that this skill might have developed from a more generic skill called “temporal anticipation.” A good example of temporal anticipation is this: I throw you a ball. You have to position your hands in the right place at the right time in order to catch it. Basically, you have to anticipate when the ball will be at a certain coordinate in three dimensional space. Similarly, with beat perception we anticipate when the next beat will fall based on what we hear as a pattern. In both cases we are predicting an event in time. Beat perception may have evolved out of temporal anticipation.

I’ll add my own thoughts here. Perceiving beats is one of the more satisfying aspects of listening to music. Who doesn’t love pumping their fists in the air in time with AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and feeling Satan’s power coursing through your veins? I’d argue that when we correctly perceive a temporal event (say, the fall of a drum hit, or catching a ball in space) we probably get a little neurotransmitter “reward” – perhaps a mild blast of dopamine or serotonin – that gives us a sense of pleasure. Thus we enjoy musical grooves and going to AC/DC concerts (and catching balls.)

I’ll add a further level to this. Scientists have theorized about the existence of what are called mirror neurons – brain neurons that fire both when we perform an activity and when we watch someone else perform an activity. Thus when we seen a drummer nail a drum hit, or a ball player catch a ball, we get a little thrill because our mirror neurons are firing with the performer’s.

I’m reminded of my time in Olympia Washington at the height of the punk rock, riot grrl movement in the early 90′s. The level of musicianship in that town, especially in the dominant musical scene, was simply atrocious, mainly because these pseudo-egalitarian commie socialists felt that judging a person’s ability by any standards was a notion derived from the loathed, dominant patriarchal hierarchy (or some similar nonsense.) Thus there was an attitude of “Play drums in time? Why would I do that when I can express my non-comformity by banging away on the drums like a fucking retarded monkey??!” I can recall watching bands and being perplexed by the horrible rhythm I was hearing. I wanted to pump my fist in time, but when I hit the beat the drums weren’t there to support me. These idiots thought they were violating the laws of “society” (the particular law being “play drums in time”) but I would argue they were violating a much older law encoded into the human brain. If some four-foot tribal caveman from the past visited Olympia back then he probably would have said, “Man, you fuckers suck!!” If there was any justice he would have thrown his feces at them.

Anyway, the book mentions another interesting tidbit. A few other animal species can create a steady beat, including elephants. There’s even an elephant orchestra in Thailand. Check this out:

1 Response to “Groove on my elephant brothers”


  1. John Saleeby

    I’m going to take that recording of the elephants drumming and rap to it. But I won’t tell anybody where the drums came from just to see how long until I get sued by the elephants. That would be cool.

    Before Colonel Parker managed Elvis (Or Eddie Arnold before Elvis) he managed an elephant. I bet that elephant could keep a beat like a motherfucker. He should have played for Elvis!