Have you ever experienced a moment on stage of unusual clarity, when the whole band and audience seemed to be completely in sync, and the perfect notes and rhythms came effortlessly? It doesn’t happen often for me, but those few times when it did are the reason I do what I do. The feeling is the same when you can lock with a great drummer; you can feel exactly what he will do before he does it, and vice versa. When playing, band members have a very real, non-physical connection; we can literally communicate without words or body language.
What is this connection? It doesn’t have a name, specifically, as far as I know. Yet everyone including non-musicians knows about it because he/she experiences it every day, even when listening to a great song on the radio. Sometimes, this feeling will give me goosebumps, or just make me smile. For the sake of this writing, I will refer to it as “emotive energy,” because it deals with and largely affects our emotions.
Why has modern science neglected the study of emotive energy? Even though it is not talked about every day, it is ever-present in our lives. Yet the question “what is it?” has not been answered. Maybe because the subject seems somewhat mystical or supernatural, people are afraid to approach it for fear of sounding crazy. (But how many important discoveries were made by people who were thought at the time to be crazy?)
Music is energy. Sound is vibration, which is kinetic energy, movement. We produce a thought, which sends electrical impulses through our body to the muscles in our finger, which then moves to pluck the bass string. The bass string vibrates, and the vibrations are transformed into electrical energy by the pickup. A cable conducts that electrical signal through whichever amps and effects we use, finally to a speaker, which converts the electrical energy into physical vibrations. The speaker transfers it’s kinetic energy to the air, which vibrates at the same frequencies; and eventually as the sound enters the ear, it vibrates the ear drum. This is once again converted to electrical signals in the brain, and thus the cycle of “bass sound” is completed.
According to the law of conservation of energy, we cannot create or destroy energy—just change it. We can vibrate the strings with a finger, but, to do so, we are using energy that we already have stored in the body. Some believe that matter is made up of nothing more than vibrations—energy. The energy that becomes music is already there. As musicians, we change this energy into sound, and call it music.
One reason that we call an activity “art” is because we can express our emotions through it by creating something. Our brain, interpreting or creating emotions, uses electrical impulses, also vibrations. We know that when we hear a sad song, we can tell that the musician is sad, or expressing that emotion; when we hear a talented politician that we like speak, we are filled with the emotion that she tries to convey. The same is true of any skilled artist using any medium. Photographers, painters, dancers, actors, and filmmakers all convey emotions through their art.
I would argue that this expression of energy goes two ways. Every human has large amounts of energy, and when large groups of people get together at a concert, the amount of energy is tremendous. Everyone can feel this energy physically. For me, playing in front of a large crowd is a huge rush. I feel like I can draw on this energy that the crowd provides and project it back to them in the music, enhancing the crowd’s feelings and emotions, which are then projected back to the band. It is a circular motion, a transfer of energy between people; and this is why even in the digital age, when music is everywhere for free, people still come to concerts. We humans need this primal connection, which we cannot attain in many other ways.
Two examples illustrate how we interact with emotive energy. Recently, I had the great honor of sitting in with the Allman Brothers Band for a song at a festival in Florida. (Thanks to one of my heroes, Oteil Burbridge, their bass player). They are all amazing musicians, and the energy that they have on stage is unparalleled. I have seen them many times before, but from the stage this whirlwind of energy was impossible to miss. I could literally feel the energy pouring from the audience of about 15,000, and the band was thriving in it; they had complete control of it and could use it to project back at the crowd to multiply their excitement. They worked in this environment like skilled sailors in a storm. They were at home on the stage. They don’t jump around, or have any crazy stage antics or light shows, but they interact more with the crowd than any band I have ever seen. The audience shares the experience, and that is why this band has been selling out large venues for 40 years. It literally blew me away to feel the energy on the stage.
In his book , The Music Lesson, Victor Wooten gave another example of how this energy comes into play. The day after Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, James Brown and his band quelled an angry crowd in Boston. Cities all over the country were rioting when Brown took the stage that evening. His concert at Boston Garden was televised live that night, and as a result most people stayed in to watch his concert on TV. When the concert started, angry fans rushed the stage and Boston police pushed them back. Brown stopped the band, told the police to leave, saying that he could handle the crowd. He commenced to tell everyone to get off the stage, and they did. He then spoke for only a few seconds, saying that everyone, Blacks and Whites, were “in this world together,” so we had better get along. Then he started again the same tune that had been interrupted, and played the entire night with no other problems. His music and his stage presence, always full of energy, were never more so than that night. People danced, laughed, and sang all night as the televised concert was repeated twice…lasting until midnight. The rioting ceased, and, by doing nothing more than projecting positive energy, James Brown became a hero in Boston.
These are just two examples of how emotive energy plays a part in our lives. I believe it plays a much bigger role than we can even conceive, literally connecting all living things together. If an effort was put forth to study this phenomenon in a scientific manner, great advances could be made in our knowledge of the universe around us. But for now, it is up to us musicians to open our eyes and learn about what we are really doing when we play music. Music bridges languages, cultures, even species, and the more we know about emotive energy and how it affects us, the more we will be able to use it to spread positive energy and truly change the world. Don’t let financial difficulties or material concerns turn you away from the broader purpose of why we do what we do. We have a very important job, and I have a feeling that in the near future we will be needed more than ever!