Saturday, November 30, 2019

We Got Rhythm...and We're Synched! The magic of the bell, swing in a racing shell, a cornerstone of Athenian democracy

This is about and experience that is very important in human society, but that has only recently come been the object of exploration and investigation. I am talking about closely synchronized physical interaction in making music, but also in dance and athletics. I have devoted considerable attention to this in my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, and have many posts on the subject under the labels coupling and synchrony.

This post is about two particular instances of such coupling. First I recount the story that opens the second chapter of Beethoven’s Anvil. Then I offer an anecdote from an athlete at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a rower. I conclude with an argument that William H. McNeil made about how rowing in triremes was a cornerstone of democracy in ancient Athens.

Swing: The magic of the bell

My friend Eddie Ade Knowles attended Lincoln University with Gil-Scott Heron in the late 1960s and then toured with him in the Magic Band for seven years. That was enough; the life of a touring musician conflicted with the demands of family life. He went into academic administration, first in New York City (I forget where), and then moved upstate to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He was, I believe, Assistant Dean for Minority Affairs when I met him in 1978 or 79. He eventually rose to become Vice-President for Student Life and then retired from that post to teach Afro-Cuban percussion in the Arts Department.

When he teaches the introductory course in Afro-Cuban percussion he has his students read the second chapter Beethoven’s Anvil. That chapter, “Music and Coupling”, begins with a story about an incident that happened while we were rehearsing with a group we’d formed, the New African Music Collective. There were four of us, Ade, me, Druis, and Fonda, and we were rehearsing a bell rhythm (pp. 23-24):
... each of us had a bell with two or three heads on it—the bells were of Ghanian manufacture. Ade assigned three of us simple interlocking rhythms to play and then improvised over the interlocking parts. Once the music got going, melodies would emerge which no one was playing. The successive tones one heard as a melody came first from one bell then another and another. No person was playing that melody; it arose from cohesions in the shifting pattern of tones played by the ensemble. Depending on the patterns he played, Ade could direct the tonal stream perceived as 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.

Occasionally, something quite remarkable would happen. When we were really locked together in animated playing we could hear relatively high-pitched tones that no one was playing. That is, while each bell had a pitch tendency (these bells were not precisely tuned), these particular high tones did not match the pitch tendency of any bell. The tones were distinct, but not ones that any of us appeared to be playing.
Let me repeat that last point. We heard distinct tones that none of us was playing. They somehow arose from the interaction of the tones we played together – constructive interference among upper partials? who knows? – and only when we had relaxed into a particularly deep groove.

Over the rest of that chapter and the next, “Fireflies: Dynamics and Brain States”, I argued that, when a group of people are making music together, their physical interactions are so tightly coupled that we may think of their (thus coupled) nervous systems as a single physical system. In this system some signals paths are inside a single individual’s nervous system while other signal paths are external to individuals, in the air between them. Those signals are shared by all individuals in the group and bind them into a single system. Note that they can do so only because, when the music began, each individual gave up many degrees of freedom so they could synchronize with the others in the group. Later on I argued that it was through such music-mediated interaction that groups of clever apes became proto-human beings. But that’s neither here nor there.

By way of transition I note that, when we had finished that bit of playing, Ade remarked that what we had experienced was “the magic of the bell”. That is to say, among certain circles of musicians it was a known phenomenon designated by a specific phrase. I should also note that of the many hours we rehearsed and performed together over several years, that was the only time the New African Music Collective experienced that magic. We’d experienced many rocking good times, many deep grooves, but none so deep and high as we’d achieved in those few moments.

Swing: Rhythm and rowing

One of Ade’s students in his Afro-Cuban music course in the current semester is a rower named Lucas Vanslette. Here is a passage from his term paper (used with permission):
Rowing five days a week for five months each year, I had the privilege to experience a famous rowing phenomenon called “the swing” only once in the past five seasons of my crew career. As Jon Buse, University of Washington Rowing class of 1972 puts it: “You know when you are able to accomplish what they call ‘the swing’ because the boat is just like one person. There’s no formula for them or how you obtain that; all the different aspects of the stroke have to be in perfect unison… and the boat just takes off.” (Taylor Hawkins). When the swing happens in a boat, every single person rowing in the boat is in sync with one another. Instead of each person taking a stroke, the boat as a whole takes a stroke. When the swing is achieved, there is a noticeable change in the boat’s speed, but also in how hard it is to take a stroke. I found that when the swing was achieved, if only for a split second, taking a stroke was much easier than before, because everyone was in time with each other. I have made the connection that “the swing” and “the magic tone” phenomena are created in the same way. Both are produced from a result of multiple people performing in perfect unison to produce something more than what any of group members could individually hope to accomplish. This synchronization may be due to the possibility that “coupled nervous systems in some sense function as a single system” (Benzon 25). Like when the swing occurs in rowing, the magic tone has no individuality; it is a team effort with no one orchestrating or enforcing the tempo.
Here is the video Vanslette refers to. The passage he references runs from roughly 4:03 to 4:20:

I was of course delighted when Ade sent me Vanslette’s paper, but I wasn’t particularly surprised by what Vanslette reported. That's just how we are.

Notice that rowers have a specific term for it, “the swing.” It is a known phenomenon. Notice as well that Vanslette had experienced it only once and that he regards that occasion as a privilege. How common is it among rowers, among athletes in general? I do not know. I’ve heard of football quarterbacks and running backs being “in the zone” though I can offer no citations. But that’s just one player. What about the team? What about, for example, basketball, hockey, or perhaps soccer – games with more “flow” than the stop and start of football? I do not know. For that matter, I don’t know how common it is among musicians either, though I’ve experienced it once or three times on other occasions[3].

Muscular bonding: Triremes and Athenian Democracy

The historian William H. McNeill made this experience the focus of his final book, Keeping Together in Time [4], in which he coined the term “muscular bonding” to cover the large-group synchronized motor behavior typical of dance and military drill. “Moving together rhythmically for hours on end,” McNeill argued (p. 27),
can be counted upon to strengthen emotional bonds among those who take part....Far larger bands than any existing today among chimpanzees or other great apes could therefore come into being....What we may think of as the human scale of primary community, comprising anything from several score to many hundreds of persons, thus emerged, thanks to the emotional solidarities aroused by keeping together in time.
The combination of military drill and music yields marching bands, which are fixtures of many American communities, even more so in the past than the present. For some reason he simply skipped music but he was delighted when I pointed it out to him and graciously consented to blurb my book when the time came.

It was only after I’d completed Beethoven’s Anvil that I read the book that made his reputation, The Rise of the West [5], which was a comprehensive account of world history. And there I was surprised and delighted to find that he found synchronized movement at the foundations of Athenian democracy. When the Peisistratid tyranny was overthrown in 510 B.C. Athenian politics open up a bit, making room for a non-Aristocrat like Themistocles to come to power. He decided that the Athenian fleet needed to be considerably expanded. The rowing benches of the triremes were to be manned by landless Athenians (p. 203):
As a rower in the triremes, he contributed as much as the hoplites themselves to the military security and wealth of Athens. Thereby his right to be heard in the assembly was confirmed. Indeed, in the fifth century, the rowers of Athens and the urban demos from which they came tended to crowed the farmer-hoplites to the margins of the political stage.

If the phalanx was the basic school of the Greek polis, the fleet was the finishing school for its democratic version: and if the family farm was the economic basis for the limited democracy of the hoplite franchise, the merchant fleet with its necessary complement of workshops, warehouses, and markets provided the economic sinews for radical democracy.
Nonetheless, Greek democracy was never total.
Later on McNeil observes (pp. 256-57):
The fleet had two further consequences for the Athenian polis. First, it made Athens securely democratic and incurably aggressive. In the fleet, the poorest citizens played the main role, since the rowers who drove the ships into battle needed no equipment but trained muscles. Consequently, the democratic forms of Athenian government were enormously strengthened when Athenians too poor to equipment themselves as hoplites acquired a vital military role as rowers. Moreover, the aggressiveness of the Athenian polis was enhanced when rowers’ pay and plunder became, for a surprisingly large proportion of the Athenian citizenry, a necessary or at least highly desirable addition to family resources.
In particular, note footnote 4, which extends across the bottoms of pages 256 and 257:
The training and rhythmic exertion of rowing was generally comparable to the rhythm and training required by the phalanx. As a matter of fact, the ships’ crews required a somewhat higher discipline, for each rower, facing backward, had to act blindly as port of a machine and could not pause to see where the ship might be going, or what danger threatened. The discipline of the rowing benches also lacked the direct appeal to instinctive ferocity inherent in hand-to-hand battle. Yet in spite or these differences, which all tended to emphasize the importance of subordination to a captain and steersman, the rowers’ training, like that of the hoplite, clearly tended to identify individual aspiration with communal success.
There you have it.

Note in particular that final phrase about the identification of individual aspiration and communal success. That is very important. Whatever kind of government a polity has, it cannot work unless the citizens identify with and are committed to it. How is that identification and commitment achieved? We have stories, we have ritual, education, and of course the polity provides public goods, such as roads and water, but also protection. McNeil is arguing that in democratic Athens – which, we know, was a very limited democracy by current standards – the act of manning an oar in a trireme was important in that process. The experience of rowing together with one’s peers afforded a concrete experience to which the abstract notion and ideals of the Athenian polis could be attached.

Both of those terms are important, the experience itself, and the abstract concept of the Athenian polis. By itself the experience is just that, a powerful experience, but without wider resonance. Similarly, without an anchor in immediate experience, the abstract attributes of the polis may be elegant and attractive, but they have only a weak purchase on one's life. Eh, so what? But join them together, anchor the concept in immediate experience, NOW we can run the state effectively. Only now is the state is REAL.

We need not imagine that the rowers in a trireme experienced the swing in a routine basis, if at all. The basic effect could be achieved by hitting a good groove, and without such a groove, moving the boat would be difficult. But imagine if all 180 oarsman could lock into “the swing”. What a thing that would be.

As Duke Ellington wrote,
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,
Doo wah, doo wah, doo wah, doo wah.
I wonder how that last phrase translates into Greek.


[1] William Benzon, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, Basic Books 2001. You can download the final draft of that chapter here,

For a different and earlier version of that incident, see my post, Musician’s Journal: The Magic of the Bell, New Savanna,

[2] Taylor Hawkins, “Finding the Swing - Rowing Video,” row2k,

[3] I have been collecting anecdotes about altered states of musical consciousness. Most, though not all, are about individuals, not groups. But those individuals were playing in groups at the time. See William Benzon, Emotion and Magic in Musical Performance, Working Paper, September 4, 2018,

[4] William Henry McNeil, Thinking Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, Harvard University Press 1995.

[5] William Henry McNeil, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, University of Chicago Press 1963, 1991.

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