Sunday, June 30, 2013

The body as the first musical instrument

Picasso Ceramic:  Dancing to the flute
Through tango I have discovered that the most primal musical instrument on earth is the human body.  Each body contains its own rhythm, called a pulse, and internal music.  Of course, many will dispute this, but it was the acceptable theory during one of the most amazing periods of artistic human development:  The Renaissance.  The power of musica instumentalis is that an orchestra or musician can give two or more people a common pulse.

I love this ceramic piece from Picasso (shown to the left) because it shows the power of musical expression to make the animal within us dance.  Only the child human animal dances without instruction to music; so what looks like a goat is actually our unique brain delighted by music so much that we human beings are moved to dance.  The flutist and the dancer are one.

I found this ceramic Picasso work of art because recently I remembered something important about my first instrument (other than my body).  I was looking for a picture of a plastic flute I had in fourth grade.  As a fourth grader, I had to learn to play the flutophone.  Before a big concert, all three classes at my school came together and we were playing together.  It sounded pretty darn good, I thought.  But then the music teacher asked everyone who took the music test and got a 80% or above to play.  Most of us put our instruments to our side and just listened.

It was amazing!  What a difference between muddled music and a clean rhythm and clear melody!  This was a huge realization of what musicality is -- it is clean rhythms and clear (even if dark or raspy) tones.

I was not good as a flutist, so I was one of the many who only listened.  But the music became a part of me.  This experience resounded in me.  I wanted to be a part of it.  That is what music does:  It has the power to move us psychologically and bodily.

I eventually dedicated myself to being a musician in fifth grade after hearing a cellist play for the first time. I was so moved that I had to learn to be a musician.  I played later in string orchestras as a bassist.  A year later in fifth-grade summer school, I started as a percussionist, which became my main instrument as a musician in symphonic orchestras, jazz bands and combos.  The electric bass brought me to dancing salsa, learning latin percussion, and then I discovered the most amazing instrument through tango:  The body.

Now I am more musically aware than ever since I learned, through tango, to embody music, that is, use my body as my primary instrument.  My music is movement as a body-musician.  Body-musicians (like singers*) use their body to create musical expression with instrumentalists or as soloists.  Tango body-musicians join with tango orchestras, usually in duets on a floor of many duets of body-musicians, which is called in tango a "milonga."

If anyone asks you if you play an instrument, the answer for tango dancers is:  "Yes.  My body."

*Theories of musica humana did not consider the voice as part of the body but instead musica instrumentalis.  I like this idea that the voice is a separate instrument from the body, but music departments and even my musicians' union when I was a professional did not allow singers in to the union because of the belief that the voice was not an instrument.  During the Renaissance the belief was that the voice box was a separate instrument and was not musica humana: "Musica quae in quibusdam constituta est instrumentis (sounds made by singers and instrumentalists)." An easy way to settle this philosophical hair-splitting is simply to allow the body to be an instrument!  The body includes the voice box, a pounding heart, vibrations of multiple organs, the buzzing and frequencies of molecules and atoms.  When we move our mind begins making its own music.  Therefore, I believe that dancing and singing are examples of how we, especially when aware, become body-musicians.

Photo credit of Picasso's work:


  1. TT wrote: If anyone asks you if you play an instrument, the answer for tango dancers is: "Yes. My body."

    Or: Yes, Our body.


    Nice article. Thanks!

  2. Chris, of course, you are absolutely correct. I did not say this explicitly, but alluded to it with the duets all playing together along with the orchestra. The milonga is that body you mention. Floorcraft problems, I posit, come only from not joining the orchestra and being part of the body. More than one person sharing the same exact pulse was my most important insight as I wrote this post.


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