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Preface & Warning

  1. Why do we listen to music?
  2. Why does music make sex better?
  3. Why do some people love Beethoven and others rap music?
  4. Is musical taste 100% nurture, or is there a role for nature?
  5. Why do aggressive young men blare out booming music from their cars? 
  6. Why do we listen to sad music? 
  7. Does violent music lead to violent behavior?
  8. Does listening to Mozart make you smarter, or just happier?
  9. Does music make the brain grow larger?
  10. Can music surreptitiously influence what we decide to buy in shops? 
  11. Can music cure?

Afterword: The Power of Music








Chapter 4


Chapter 4 is not online yet  

This is actually chapter 1     
Woody Allen  


Territory in Germany was shifting with seismic force by the end of 1989, and erupting from the cracks in the Berlin Wall there was music.  German popsters Milli Vanilli finally topped the international charts with “Girl You Know It’s True.” Then, on Christmas night in Berlin, Leonard Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (the Ninth Symphony) to officially celebrate Germany’s reunification. Bernstein wielded the baton over a specially altered score, with the word joy (“freude”) symbolically transformed into freedom (“freiheit”).[6]  Broadcast internationally, this concert heralded a new message: the German people had triumphed.  The Eastern Bloc was finished.

A few days later, another concert was held to mark the New Year, the new decade, and the new Germany.  Another icon of popular culture was chosen to lead the festivities: the American actor, David Hasselhoff. Standing above his adoring German fans in freezing temperatures, Hasselhoff mimed his hit “Looking for Freedom.”  The crowd sang along with the anthemic chorus, “I’ve been lookin’ for freedom, I’ve been lookin’ for so long.”  To further bedazzle the spectators, the back of Hasselhoff’s leather jacket was covered in a synchronized display of flashing electric lights.

This incongruous encounter between Hasselhoff and the end of the Cold War resurfaced in 2004 during an interview with the German media.[7]  Hasselhoff felt that his role in reunifying the country had been under-appreciated. In a typically forthright way, the actor remarked:

I find it a bit sad that there is no photo of me hanging on the walls in the Berlin Museum at Check-Point Charlie. After my appearance I hacked away at pieces of the wall that had the black, red and yellow colours of the German flag on it. I kept the big piece for myself and gave the smaller pieces to colleagues at Baywatch.

That quote is not just about Hasselhoff’s vanity.  Nor is it just bragging about being in Berlin at the big moment.  Rather, he has arrived at an insight about the relationship between himself and the place. The insight is about territory.  In animals a territory is “a defended space”,[8] guarded by fighting, urinating, or some other “display”.  The flag marked territory.  So did the crowd’s unity.  Even pocketing the souvenirs was a grab at territory. Everything in this episode, from Hasselhoff’s act of singing by the Berlin Wall all the way to his later need to display his photo in the museum, is all about this one human need: territory.

In humans territory is often more social than physical, because it sparks a sense of belonging.  Social territory defines who belongs “in” and who should be kept “out”. This social territory can be a physical place, but being “in” often manifests itself as displays of social connections: songs, fashion items, beliefs, and even hairstyles.  For example, in public spaces such as a library a person may display “territorial” behavior to repel others by spreading their possessions around them. The territory is more about “display” than about ownership, as usually it is surrendered when the person leaves — except for very territorial people who insist on having the same chair in the library week after week.

Being inside one’s own territory has many emotional advantages distinct from providing resources. Consider how territory can make car drivers bold and rude, give a winning edge to a sports team, and turn bedrooms into the safest place for sex; in each of these cases, the advantage provided by territory is an empowering mental state rather than a physical resource. Within these examples territory shapes our decisions and changes the meaning of our moment-to-moment existence.

Music contributes to territory so often that we fail to notice the ubiquity of the link: music can soothe babies, pace athletes during exercise and invigorate an army before fighting. Might territory be the reason we have music? Certainly music was one way Hasselhoff marked his territory to arouse emotions that empower — not just in himself, but in everyone watching him.  Each facet of his story is territorial, whether he was above the crowd singing or in the corner of the museum symbolically peeing.

* * * * * * * *

In 1928, pioneering ornithologist and stay-at-home mother of five, Margaret Morse Nice (1883-1974), became the first ornithologist to accurately survey the territory of wild birds. Nice achieved this by tying bands of colored plastic — taken from celluloid dolls and old baby rattles — to the legs of the song sparrows living within the forty-acre floodplain behind her house in Columbus, Ohio.[9] She gave each bird a number-and-letter-code name, and then carefully took notes on each bird’s arrivals and departures. Nice also recorded the bird’s mate (or mates), the bird’s songs, and the extent of its territory. In this way, Nice happily passed the depression years of the 1930’s completely immersed in the battles and infidelities of the song sparrows in her backyard. As one of her colleagues wrote, “Occasionally I was invited to her home for dinnerI found it difficult to concentrate upon the subject at hand, especially when a Nuthatch alighted on my head or a song sparrow hopped across my dinner plate.[10]

A song sparrow may seem peaceful, but Margaret Morse Nice spotted that each male sang most intensely when he was showing off in a male-male competition and when he defended his territory. By patiently keeping records of the birds’ movements, she discovered that each male would defend the same territory year after year, gathering all his resources from within the limits of his own zone. More importantly, Nice showed that a female who did not hold a territory of her own would learn to accept the borders of her mate’s territory by listening to his song. Margaret Morse Nice’s home-based science led biologists to conclude that the reason birds sing is more linked to establishing territory than to attracting a mate,[11] because there are many advantages to having a territory (food, nesting material, caches, and defensive refuges) other than attracting a mate

For example, David Lack, a British ornithologist who explained speciation by revisiting Darwin’s Finches in the Galapagos,[12] noted that Britain’s most popular bird, the robin, also sings to signal the extent of its territory.[13] Lack found that whenever two male robins are put together in an aviary, they fiercely compete for this new territory by singing against each other until one of them gives up — only the winner continues to display in his new terrain by singing. During the autumn season, both males and females will hold territories and sing. As autumn is not breeding season, territory appears to be the only explanation for their musical behavior.[14]

But gathering territory with music occurs in humans as well. Australian Aborigines use music to explicitly define their territory.[15] They believe that some of their traditional songs were composed in the ‘Dreaming’ — the time when the world was first created and ancestral beings traveled the land, creating and naming the landscape in their song.[16]   These songs serve not only as mythology, but they also describe the countryside and the whereabouts of food and water. Each song is thus a ‘songmap’ of a particular area. During initiation, an individual learns the songs that describe his own area of country. Thereafter the young aboriginal uses these songs as a sign of ownership, a title-deed to territory, just like a bird does.[17]   The young Aboriginal understands the magical power of the song to mark his own territory.

However, the analogy between human and bird music breaks down because human territory is most often tribal, ethnic, or national. When you control the music, it establishes territory, for yourself and your social group. When somebody else controls the music, it is they who control the territory, and they can quickly repel intruders.

When loitering youths became problematic in the Warrawong Westfield shopping mall in Wollongong, south of Sydney, they were quickly dispersed by being serenaded over the loud speakers with the 1938 recording of “My Heart is Taking Lessons” by crooner Bing Crosby.[18] This idea has since been adapted with great success in railway stations prone to vandalism by troublesome teenagers. Over a six-week period in early 2000, teen-repellent music by Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach was piped into Sydney metropolitan train stations, resulting in an overall seventy per cent drop in vandalism rates, and completely eliminating it at two stations.[19]

When residents were intimidated by local youths hanging around in Cook Park Reserve revving their engines, the Sydney Council of Rockdale resorted to extreme measures. From July 2006, Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana”, “I Write the Songs” and “Mandy” were blasted onto the land reserve from 9 pm in the evening till midnight for a period of six months. After four weeks the efforts began to pay off. Rockdale Deputy Mayor Bill Saravinovski said, “Barry's our secret weapon,[20] although classical music, Doris Day’s “Que sera, sera” and generally any “music that doesn't appeal to these people[21] was also used. Unfortunately, the local residents found this music just as annoying as the revving engines, keeping them up late at night. After receiving complaints, Saravinovski caved in only so far as to reduce the volume and diversify the music. “I'm not disputing what the residents are saying. I can't swallow some of the tracks like ‘Mandy’,” said Saravinovski. “We have tried to reduce the sound and we are reviewing the songs. I don't mind Barry Manilow, but I'm more of an ABBA and Celine Dion fan.”  In a conflict between groups, music can be used to control territory, and this feature has been adopted in formalized human conflicts such as war.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *



[6] Associated Press (1989). Upheaval in the East: Berlin; Near the Wall, Bernstein Leads an Ode to Freedom. The New York Times, December 26.

[7] He spoke to Spielfilm magazine. See: BBC News (2004). Did David Hasselhoff really help end the Cold War? BBC News Online, 6 Feb.

[8] This is the 1939 definition of evolutionary biologist and debunker Gladwyn Kingsley Noble; see Noble GK (1939). The role of dominance in the life of birds. Auk, vol. 56, pp. 263-273.

[9] Dickinson JL (1998). Birds in the Bushes: A Story about Margaret Morse Nice. The Condor 100(3): 583.  

[10] Trautman MB (1977). In Memoriam: Margaret Morse Nice. Auk 94, 430-441.

[11] The idea of territory was not Nice’s invention. She was swayed by the theory of the famous ethologist Niko Tinbergen. Nice’s observations of an entire community of birds “in the wild” provided evidence for the theory.

[12] Lack D (1947). Darwin's Finches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (reissued in 1961 by New York: Harper).

[13] Lack D (1971). The Life of the Robin. London: Collins, p. 219.

[14] Lack D (1971). The Life of the Robin. London: Collins, p. 223.

[15] Maddern E (1988). ‘We have survived’: Aboriginal music today. The Musical Times, 129, 595-597.

[16] Maddern E (1988). ‘We have survived’: Aboriginal music today. The Musical Times, 129, 595-597.

[17] Storr A (1992). Music and the Mind. London: Harper Collins, p. 212.

[18] BBC News (1999). Bing keeps troublemakers at bay. BBC News Online, 8July. 

[19] Cloonan M, Johnson B (2002). Killing me softly with his song: an initial investigation into the use of popular music as a tool of oppression. Popular Music 21(1): 27–39.

[20] BBC News (2006). Manilow to drive out 'hooligans'. BBC News Online, 17 July.

[21] Tijs A (2006). Manilow To Challenge Rockdale Yobbos, 6th June. Accessed 10 May 2010; jun06/20060606_barrymanilow.html

An excerpt from You Are What You Hear: How Music and Territory make Us Who We Are, By Harry Witchel, published by Algora Publishing. Copyright 2010 by Harry Witchel.