Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, by William Mcneill

October 31, 1996

mcneillKeeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, by William Mcneill. Harvard University Press (1997). ISBN 9780674502307.

Extravagant expenditure of muscular energy in dance and song is the most fundamental of all human devices for consolidating community feeling, simply because it arouses a warm sense of togetherness, diminishing personal conflicts and facilitating cooperation.

This sentence from William McNeill's Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995) comes from his caption to a photograph of a Minoan-period vase, showing a procession of ancient Cretans singing and carrying harvesting tools. Though it comes from a caption, it nearly expresses the thesis of the book. Nearly, because the sentence speaks of "dance and song," while the book is more concerned with "dance and drill." In fact, the origin of the book is the author's recollection of his own surprise, when he was in basic training in the U. S. Army during World War II, that the apparently pointless marching drills he endured actually created a powerful emotional bond between himself and his fellow recruits. Half a century later, now a distinguished historian accustomed to taking the long and large view (as in The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, 1963) he has written a short book in which he places that experience in a wider context of "muscular bonding" experiences he describes as central to human history.

This is a sketch of a theory, then, about what connects the dancing of early hunting and farming communities, the trancing and other ecstatic behaviors associated with religion in many parts of the world, the close-formation marching of armies at certain times in history, and the calisthenics of nineteenth-century Sweden and twentieth-century East Asia. It makes a contribution to the fast-growing field of studies of the human body as a cultural site_to the work, that is, of anthropologists and other students of culture who are asserting the importance of nonverbal activities in the formation of cultures. (McNeill, however, seems not always aware of this work and, when he is, not altogether comfortable associating his own thoughts with it.)

Music ought to have a bigger place in the book than it does. McNeill only occasionally considers the role of music in enabling people to drill or dance or trance; it is even more rare when (as in the sentence quoted above) he considers musical sound itself and the shared experience of music-making as "human devices for consolidating community feeling." His real subject is bodily movement carried out by groups of people in synchrony, so that they "keep together in time." But musicians who read the book can ask themselves how similar any shared musical experience is to the ways of "keeping together in time" described by McNeill. Or maybe these musical readers could ask themselves whether McNeill's subject isn't -- as his title suggests to me -- really music after all, and whether all the experiences he describes aren't really part -- but only part -- of the "musical" side of human culture.

He writes so open-mindedly -- and with such self-consciousness of how far he is stretching into territory for which his experience as a historian doesn't quite prepare him -- that I feel confident he would be delighted to respond to such suggestions. But my purpose in this review isn't to imagine the book as something other than what its author wrote; rather, I am interested in the possibility of extending the terms in which he discusses military drill and communal dancing and calisthenics to the public discussions now going on in this country about usefulness of music and musical training.

I have been struck lately by the enormous publicity that has been given to a couple of reports of research on music as a means of enhancing nonmusical skills -- a brief communication from a group of psychologists who found that listening to ten minutes of the Mozart two-piano sonata improved subjects' performance on "standard IQ spatial reasoning tasks" (Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky in Nature 365 [14 October 1993], p. 611) and another from a group of educators who found that training in the musical and visual arts helped grade-school children perform better in mathematics (Gardner, Fox, Knowles, and Jeffrey in Nature 381 [23 May 1996].

I assume that the great interest shown in this research by the news media corresponds to a yearning in some parts of the public for ways to justify support of music and the other arts, and especially training in those arts, in times when that support is dwindling. It can be very tempting to cite research like this when writing to legislators or arguing before school boards and city councils or within one's own college or university in favor of arts programs. I know that I feel that temptation, but also hesitation because the political arena doesn't allow for the reservations I feel about this research and its results. In my hesitation I remind myself to argue that our society needs music programs because human beings need music -- and music-making -- in their lives, not just because music may help children and adults with other kinds of skills.

McNeill's Keeping Together in Time helps me to notice that the advantages these researchers find in music or musical training are all individual advantages; they ignore the social side of music, its bonding power. Reread the sentence I quoted from McNeill above about dance and song as "human devices for consolidating community feeling," arousing "a warm sense of togetherness diminishing personal conflicts and facilitating cooperation." We can do more research into these effects of music too, and, keeping in mind the possibility that community feeling and cooperation can be used for ill as well as good (a possibility that McNeill allows for with military drill and religious ecstasy and mass exercise), we can make political arguments in favor of music in these terms, too.

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