Saturday, March 30, 2013

Musician's Journal: The Magic of the Bell

This experience has had a profound effect on how I think about music. I used a reworked version to open the second chapter of Beethoven's Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture.

Introduction: Together on the One

Interpersonal synchrony, moving, precisely, to the same beat as your fellows, is the core of social experience. The thrusts and jerks of an infant’s limbs, the timing of glances and twists of the body, will follow the speech rhythms of someone talking to the infant. Couples casually strolling in the park walk in step. People at a ball game make a “wave” in support of their team. All societies have rituals where people gather together and synchronize their movements, and thereby their hearts and minds, in affirmation of the central values of their culture.

I want to consider an example which is immediately familiar to me. This behavior is happened my current homeland, upstate New York, which is as familiar to me as Africa was to the original African-Americans. It involves bell playing based on traditional African techniques.

The Craft

However, before getting to the magic, you need to understand a little about the craft. Few physical tasks are easier than getting a sound from a bell by hitting it with a stick. But that doesn’t mean that you can play your bell in a mood of casual somnambulance. No, you must be sensitive to small details, for nuance matters.

Generally you hold the bell in your left hand and the stick in your right—if you are right-handed. When you hit the bell with a stick the stick will bounce back. You need to learn to work with the rebound, not against it. If you hold the stick too firmly your grip will damp out the rebound and you will thereby waste the energy the bell has imparted to the stick. Rather, you want to hold the stick lightly and learn simply to redirect the stick’s energy back to the bell. You want to “cooperate” with the stick and the bell rather than “dominate” them.

Further, you need to attend to just where you hit the bell. The sound of a bell is complex and varies depending on just where you hit it. Thus, by hitting a bell in different places you can get several distinctly different sounds from a single bell. The different sounds you get from the bell will blend with other bell sounds in different ways. You have to be conscious of these blending possibilities when playing your bell.

By hitting the bell with sensitivity to the elastic properties of stick and bell you become one with the bell. By hitting the bell with sensitivity to the way your bell tones blend with other bell tones you become one with the group. While thus “becoming one with” has a mystical aura about it, you need to understand that this mystical aura is grounded in the subtleties of physical technique.

Group Unity

Now that you understand that bell-playing is a physical act of some delicacy, you can begin to appreciate the magic which can happen when playing bells in a group. I want to tell about that. I have in mind some sessions organized by Adenola Knowles, a percussionist from Harlem USA who was trained in African percussion by a number of African-born musicians, including Yacub Addy of Ghana, and who has toured with Gil Scott-Heron as a percussionist in the Magic Band.

There were four of us at the sessions, as I recall, with Ade as the leader. Each of us had a wrought-iron Ghanaian bell with two or more heads on it. Ade assigned three of us simple interlocking rhythms to play. That is, each of us had a particular pattern of sounds we had to play. While one might have a stroke or two in common with another player, most of your strokes were different from anyone else’s strokes. But each individual pattern was designed to interact with the other patterns in a way which produced an overall sense of unity.

Once we established the basic patterns Ade began improvising a part beyond the fixed interlocking parts. Melodies began to emerge which no one was playing. By melody I simply mean a sequence of tones that hangs together in time. In these melodies played by all and by no one the melody tones came from one bell, then another, and another, and so on. No one person was playing the melody; it arose from the "cohesions" which appeared in the shifting pattern of tones played by the ensemble. Depending on the patterns he played, Ade could “direct” the melody, but the tones he played weren't necessarily the melody tones. Rather, they served to direct the melodic "cohesions" from place to place. Some of Ade’s tones would be melodically active, some would not. Even though Ade was the leader, he did not have a monopoly on the melody.

This is quite different from what happens in part-playing on the European model. In European part-playing, one player (or group of players) has the melody line and the other players (or group) has harmony lines. The melody and harmony lines generally have the same rhythm, but only the melody line “makes sense.” When you listen to a composition arranged and performed in the European manner, the “tune” you take away with you, the sounds you are inclined to hum or whistle, is the melody. You are only indirectly aware of the harmony. And, as I’ve said, one person plays ALL the melody notes, while the others NEVER play melody notes. The bell melodies which arise in a bell choir are quite different. The tones which are in the foreground, i.e. the melody, shift from bell to bell depending on the (pitch and temporal) relationships which exist between the tones. People play different parts and no one plays the melody. Only the group itself plays the melody.

In the Ade sessions, three of us were playing the same thing over and over again. Thus the relationships which obtained between our tones stayed the same from cycle to cycle. However, Ade improvised his patterns; they were not the same from cycle to cycle. And the tones he played didn't simply "float on top" of the tones the rest of us were playing like an independent melody line. They existed in the same “tonal space,” and, because of this, they affected the moment to moment gestalt of tones in that space. The variable tones Ade played affected how ALL the tones interacted.

This sort of interaction is, in fact, typical of any African percussion ensemble I’ve heard, not just bell ensembles. But the effect was most striking with the bells. The point is that the interaction of various musical lines is such that patterns move into the perceptual foreground which aren't being played by any one musician. The melodic stream, the foreground, moves from musician to musician. If you break the perceived music into perceptually and functionally distinct parts, those parts will be different from the parts being played by individual musicians. This ensemble arrangement is a perfect metaphor/realization of group consciousness.

But it is more than a metaphor. It is a technique for achieving and affirming such consciousness. We are one in the melody collectively created. We learn to be one through collectively creating melodies. The bell choir is an instrument which creates unity and harmony from diversity.

The Magic

Now we get to the magic. For, when the music is really rocking, when spirits were high and a cool sweat begins to form, you begin to hear tones that no one is playing, high-pitched tones that flit from place to place like melodic butterflies. In talking about these tones, Ade assured me that these tones were simply “the magic of the bells.” They were familiar to him, these magic tones, friends who dropped in whenever, and only when, the music was rocking and the musicians locked solid into a deep groove. If you play bells with sensitive and competent musicians, sooner or later you will become part of the magic. That magic is thus nothing special. It is open to all.

These magic tones are the sort of thing that tempts one to talk of spirits invoked by the music. And, that, no doubt, is how some people explain those tones. They are spirit voices.

However, I am not willing to toss Western science and rationality aside. Thus I am more inclined to explain those tones through the precisely physical. My guess, and that is all that it is, is that these tones result from what physicists call constructive interference. If you have ever watched the surface of a body of water where various boats are sailing, chances are you have seen constructive interference. When the wakes from two boats cross one another there will be some patches where the waves cancel one another out and the water is smooth; that is destructive interference. There will be other patches where the waves reinforce one another, making the water even choppier than that in a single wake. Those patches show constructive interference. In the case of the magic tones from the bells, each bell is vibrating at many different frequencies, some louder than others. If the sounds from the bells are very precisely synchronized, you will get constructive interference between some frequencies which aren’t loud enough in any one bell to be distinctly heard unless they are reinforced with sound from one or more other bells.

How do people get so precisely synchronized? By locking in to built-in expressive rhythms that are the same for everyone and that emerge during emotional excitement and engagement. This synchronization is thus not a result of conscious effort at synchrony, but rather, it results from allowing one’s musical actions to be governed by innate patterns of feeling. That is to say, you get the needed precision by playing with passion.

This is a very important point. For Western culture has come to see passion and precision as being antithetical. Precision is about measure and control and so is disrupted by emotion or feeling. The physical reality of music gives us reason to question this. For, if I am correct in my explanation of the magic of the bell, then musical passion enhances musical precision and is not antithetical to it.

As I say, that explanation is only a guess. The phenomenon of those magic tones, however, is quite real. If you don’t want to accept a mystical explanation for those tones then you have to be prepared to accept, or see the need for, some physical explanation. And one of the things that physical explanation must deal with is the fact that the magic tones occur only when players are relaxed and excited. They can’t be consciously forced to happen. The magical tones exist only during heightened feeling states.

Those tones are a palpable sign that the group has become ONE, of one mind and one spirit and one heart. That is the lesson of the bell. That we can become one through attention to craft and trust in our feeling.


  1. " get the needed precision by playing with passion."

    I've heard it happen. It's happened to me, but I've never thought of it in these terms. Quite an interesting insight.

  2. "built-in expressive rhythms that are the same for everyone..." what fascinating post, music definitely augments cognition, it may well be one of the first tools/technology that engendered the process of hominization... which is to say musicking precedes languaging... indeed, i do think that our everyday (interpersonal) interactions are rhythmic through and through and basically we lose face when we fall out of pace, the subliminal pace that dictates, for instance, the subtle shifts in our gestures and grunts... style, in this view, is the personal measure of impersonal (ie. interpersonally distributed) rhythms that animate our interactions.. I have an old video on youtube in which i read pertinent passages from an interesting study:

  3. "...i do think that our everyday (interpersonal) interactions are rhythmic through and through and basically we lose face when we fall out of pace, the subliminal pace that dictates, for instance, the subtle shifts in our gestures and grunts... "

    Sounds right to me. In your video you talk about intra-body communication. Music is the medium through which internal rhythms extend outward to others and become interpersonal rhythms. Some years ago biologist Colin Pittendrigh asserted that organisms were rhythms within rhythms.

  4. Interesting paper I read. Students were shown a tape of teachers (who had previously been assessed by other students for performance) they were unfamiliar with. Sound was turned down and they could only see movement. I think they were shown two minutes. They were then given an assessment form, had no idea of how they came to answers but corresponded well with students with actual class experience.

    I noticed the issue myself giving presentations on very tentative early day material. It got an odd reception. But my movement and voice were mismatched (conclusion I cane to at the time anyway). Years spent learning how to control movement and in high stress situation. I suspect I was sending out all the wrong signals from the response.