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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








An excerpt from the book,
"You Are What You Hear":





This book is a series of interconnected ideas linking music to social territory.

That’s what it is. Here is what it isn’t. This book is not a summary of the academic literature.  Nor is it a reference manual. It makes no attempt to be comprehensive, nor is it organized in a way that is needed for a researcher. In fact, it does not even stick strictly to experimentally derived facts.  This book is not an undeviating march in a worthy campaign; it is more like a safari that circles back to where you started. The plan is for the book to be a romp that you can read straight through without ever checking your map, such that by the end you will have a much deeper understanding about an idea that is so intuitive that you might mistake it for a tautology.

The entire idea is this: humans have music to establish and reinforce social territory. That assertion is what my fellow academics would call speculative. This speculative nature is precisely what makes it interesting.  On one level the idea is almost obvious; I have heard it mentioned obliquely in the media many times by non-experts,[1] and when I tell people the idea they immediately “get it” and see the connection, even though they may never have thought about music in that way before.  After all, it is a scientific fact that many passerine birds use music for territory.[2]  But although it seems obvious, scientific treatments of this idea applied to humans are quite rare and have never been developed to the level you will find here.

That is possibly because there is not as much controlled experimental data as one would want as an academic. This field of inquiry is derived from a wide range of diverse academic disciplines (social psychology, physiology, ethology, cultural studies, musicology, neuroscience), which would never be put together inside a single experimental program. But music is a broad church. It is endemic in our civilization, and in nature, so it invites an interdisciplinary approach.

The word interdisciplinary has a problematic reputation in academia. Unlike multi-disciplinary research — where one might mix biochemistry with integrative neuroscience to produce an academic paper with a clear conclusion about how a molecule affects the brain — inter-disciplinary research commingles academics from much further apart — for example a scientist, a historian, and an artist — giving it the (sometimes undeserved) reputation of being unfocused in its outcomes, as if the final output of the research would be an interpretive dance of how the researchers feel about the topic.

Well, music and dancing go together, and this book is my little interpretive dance. As my brother, who is currently the ballet critic for the New York Post would say (in a comic foreign accent), “Daaancing is rouuuund.” This book takes a 360 degree perspective. By looking at music from crisscrossing frames of reference, coincidences start to emerge such that, even though some of the “evidence” is observational rather than based on controlled experiments, a picture takes shape, almost like pointillism, that reveals how music reinforces territory.

Territory has had a bit of a rough deal over the past 40 years, and in this book I have revamped it by transmogrifying the term into social territory. Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative created quite a buzz when it was published in 1966, proposing a biological explanation for Hitler’s motive entering World War II, which was then and still remains the most pointless and the most stupid waste of human life there ever was. However, the definition of territory then prevalent — a defended space — meant that over the next two decades, scientists making telemetric measurements of the precise movements of animals found that very few species actually had territories according to that definition.[3] Most animals have “home ranges”, and ironically it is we humans — with our locked homes, picket fences and national borders — who create the most conspicuous examples of defended territories in the animal kingdom.

There are comparatively few examples of music being used by humans to defend a space. By contrast, there seem to be many examples where music is used to define a space — to say who should be there, what is going on, and what behaviors you should adopt.  In many cases, music plainly does have a territorial function, even if we do not sing at each other aggressively, as robins do. For territory purists, this discussion may seem more related to social identity than to territory per se, but I am keen to show that in many cases music in humans is obviously related to music in birds, and plainly one cannot do social identity research encompassing descriptive interviews with a sage grouse. I have used the term social territory to indicate that a number of these behaviors are shared in humans and in other species.

Rather than limiting the discussion of territory to behaviors related to physical defense and its precursors, this book looks more broadly at territoriality, a term from the study of human nonverbal communication that refers to behaviors that signify ownership, occupancy and belonging — regarding places, objects and other human beings. These latter three categories would include your home, your possessions, and your loved ones.  They may seem a fairly broad and indeterminate set of recipient entities, but if you watch people’s body language concerning how they spread out and grab things, you can see fairly similar territorial behaviors directed toward a bedroom, a bag, and a boyfriend. The territorial behaviors that I focus on are displays, marking, and gathering, and music has a clear role in all three.

The fact that territorial behavior can be directed toward a person or group completely frees the territoriality I am talking about from the specific confines of a space. The human race is fairly mobile, and as the Beastie Boys say, “Wherever I hang my hat’s my home.” One theme repeated in this book is that territory is not a place — it is a state of mind that triggers various behaviors of empowerment.

The science behind behaviors is the other theme in this book. Scientists have “problems”, which are their favorite questions, riddles, and paradoxes.  Unlike normal people, scientists relish their problems — because they live for the process of finding the solution.  How do they do this? Delightfully, there is no such thing as the scientific method; every scientist does things in a somewhat different fashion, and this book documents that strange and wonderful diversity. The science behind behavior is itself idiosyncratic.  Unlike chemistry, where if you follow the recipe, you get the right products, human beings vary moment to moment and they differ from each other. When considering human psychobiology — the study explaining psychology (emotions and behavior) in terms of biology (brains, hormones and electrical signals) — proving A causes B requires some adjustments in how you think about the world, and this book introduces some handy ideas from science to make sense of it all. My thinking is fairly eclectic, so what you’ll get is my own special cocktail for “the problem” of music.

There is something special about music, which manifests itself whenever a two-year-old starts jigging about spontaneously to a tune. Music has a power that makes it manifestly different from talking or noise. This book muses upon music.  At one point it even attempts to define music, which I freely admit is impossible.  As Lord Byron says,

There's music in the sighing of a reed;
There's music in the gushing of a rill;
There's music in all things, if men had ears […]

A central tenet of this book is that people tend to formulate which music they respond to based on associative memories.  If you listen to a particular kind of music during your childhood, then those sounds are going to have special significance for you; likewise, if you are a composer and spend many hours constructing your own sonic landscape, you will accord that special prominence.  Ultimately, if you have your own definition of music, who am I to say that it isn’t true?  If you dance around the room to samples of human screams you have recorded from horror movie soundtracks, then I respectfully acknowledge your definition of music and accept that you and I differ in how we respond to your music.

This book considers how people in general respond to music.  Which people?  Well, whenever possible the book explicitly mentions when a scientific study is looking at four day old babies, children under five, university undergraduate students, and clinical cohorts.  The book also accepts that ethnomusicology has much to say about music in general, and this book examines at many points how different cultures respond to music.  However, I am a psychobiologist, not an ethnomusicologist, and when a specific culture is not mentioned, I am almost invariably referring to Western music.  Even worse, where not specifically stated, I may be blindly referring to issues that are only relevant to Anglophone Western cultures — again, not out of insensitive chauvinism, but more out of familiarity and my own associative memories.  It is my territory.


[1] For an example in an academic journal making many of these arguments connecting music, territory and identity at a personal level (albeit in a stream of consciousness form), see Wise JM (2000). Home: Territory and Identity. Cultural Studies 14(2): 295–310.

[2] Forstmeier W & Balsby TJS (2002). Why mated dusky warblers sing so much: territory guarding and male quality announcement. Behaviour 139, 89–111. Catchpole CK (1983). Variation in the song of the great reed warbler Acrocephalus arudinaceus in relation to mate attraction and territorial defence.  Animal Behavior 31: 1217-1225.

[3] When scientists look just at where the animal frequents, they call it a “home range”; by contrast, a territory is scientifically estimated by the location of defence events.  If an animal tolerates others in its locale, many scientists would refuse to call it a territory.  Börger L, Dalziel BD and Fryxell JM (2008). Are there general mechanisms of animal home range behaviour? A review and prospects for future research.  Ecology Letters, 11: 637–650.

[4] Byron GG (1857). Don Juan (canto XV, st. 5). Edited by Widger D, Project Gutenberg EBook #21700.


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.