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On Momentum (I): Everybody Wants It -- But What Is It?

Jul 22, 2009
How did he do it? Every politician would give his eyeteeth to learn the secret. Millions of adoring fans, the megabucks, the rush and crush of the media, the worldwide fame . . .

So, how did Michael Jackson do it? In life and in death, so much -- both "good" and "bad" -- gravitated his way.

His 1983 album "Thriller" sold more than the populations of California and New York City combined. After his death, Jackson's albums sold .2.3 million copies in just 17 days. I cannot think of a better textbook example of the physics definition of "momentum": mass times velocity.

I sensed in the course of numerous political campaigns that they had musical properties: key, pitch, timbre, etc. Musical qualities were especially evident in the most highly prized element: momentum. Obama clearly had momentum in the 2008 Democrat primaries.

Psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science: none of them ever unlocked momentum's secret. That is why I turned to a totally unconventional, untraditional, and unacceptable methodology for the social sciences: musicology.

Gravity, allure, attraction, magnetism: the words describing momentum, like momentum itself, seem to keep moving. In fact, movement is the basic ingredient of momentum. In physics, a body at rest has 0 momentum. In music, movement is rhythm, tempo, and meter.

Simply put: if there is something musical about momentum in human affairs, can music help unlock momentum's secrets?

First, a basic premise: like momentum and movement, momentum and power are inseparable.

There is nothing new about a music/power connection. Plato wrote that "when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them."(1)

For centuries Plato's remark was relegated to the category of the quaint; the first time I read it, I shrugged, blinked, and moved on.

But recently-developed technological tools, notably magnetic resonance imaging machines and electronic synthesizers, have created a new scientific field relating music to neurology. In this rapidly developing discipline, research is creating extraordinary insights into ordinary human perception and behavior -- how our brains are wired up.

"Go With The Flow," "The Trend Is Your Friend": our attraction to and participation in momentum appear to be rooted in that basic wiring.

Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, a leader and populariser of the emerging music/neurology field, noted that our ancestors knew about the power of music:

"The multiple reinforcing cues of a good song -- rhythm, melody, contour -- cause music to stick in our heads. That is the reason that many ancient myths, epics, and even the Old Testament were set to music in preparation for being passed down by oral tradition across the generations. As a tool for activation of specific thoughts, music is not as good as language. As a tool for arousing feelings and emotions, music is better than language."(2)

In recognizing a fundamental relationship between music and power -- or momentum -- we merely pick up where the ancients left off.

Why did Michael Jackson and Barack Obama have momentum?

To answer the question Why? we must first answer the question How? How does something become meaningful? Important? Powerful? -- that is to say: "momentous"?

Phrasing the answer in musicological terms:

He who has momentum is comparable to the root note, the tonal center or key in music. "Tonal center," because all other notes in that key have a momentum toward the root note. "Modulations" or deliberate, temporary changes aside, once the key is established, all accepted and acceptable changes henceforth will be within that key, and those outside it will be heard as wrong notes, mistakes.

If that is not power, what is?

"Will be heard as": reason has nothing to do with that experience which is a sensation. Reason is, literally and figuratively, beside the point. As Walter Cronkite would say, "That's the way it is."

What makes a root note so powerful? Answer: its "fundamental frequency." Daniel Levitin:

"When you listen to a single note played on an instrument, you are actually hearing many, many pitches at once, not a single pitch. Most of us are not aware of this consciously . . . The one with the slowest vibration rate -- the one lowest in pitch -- is referred to as the fundamental frequency, and the others are collectively called overtones . . .

Surprisingly, these other frequencies are often mathematically related to each other in a very simple way: as integer multiples of one another. So if you pluck a string and its slowest vibration frequency is one hundred times per second, the other vibration frequencies will be 2 x 100 (200Hz), 3 x 100 Hz (300 Hz), etc. When an instrument creates energy at frequencies that are integer multiples such as this, we say that the sound is harmonic . . .

The brain is so attuned to the overtone series that if we encounter a sound that has all of the components except the fundamental, the brain fills it in for us in a phenomenon called 'restoration of the missing fundamental.' A sound composed of energy at 100 Hz, 200 Hz, 300 Hz, 400 Hz, and 500 Hz is perceived as having a pitch of 100 Hz, its fundamental frequency.

But if we artificially create a sound with energy at 200 Hz, 300 Hz, 400 Hz, and 500 Hz (leaving off the fundamental), we still perceive it as having a pitch of 100 Hz. We don't perceive it as having a pitch of 200 Hz, because our brain 'knows' that a normal, harmonic sound with a pitch of 200 Hz would have an overtone series of 200 Hz, 400 Hz, 600 Hz, 800 Hz, etc."(3)

The fundamental frequency of the root note seems to be at the heart of momentum. Its capacity to be perceived as present even when absent -- a sensory (auditory) illusion -- explains how momentum tends toward ubiquity.

Only one thing is truly ubiquitous . . .

Momentum in music does not exist "out there" independently of our neurological equipment. The proof may be that even when the above illusion is singled out and explained rationally, the neurological mechanism producing the illusion stays on.

Reasonable explanations and enlightened criticisms based on factual evidence, logical inductions and deductions -- all have lost their place to something far more primordial and impregnable, more authoritative than anything they will confront elsewhere.

Momentum is why the charges that Michael Jackson was a pedophile (and therefore should be despised), or that Ronald Reagan was "shallow" ("just" an actor), or that Obama was not "ready" to be president, never really stuck to the wall. Were the allegations true? Untrue? It makes no difference. Momentum carries the day.

Which might make you wonder: what key have our brains been attuned to?


(1) Plato, "Plato's Republic," translated by B. Jowett, Random House, New York, undated, p. 135. (Book IV, subject 424). The separation of music and politics is not innate. "In primitive cultures as a rule no special realm of experience is separated out as the aesthetic." Leonard Meyer, "Music, The Arts And Ideas," The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1994, p. 54.
(2) Daniel J. Levitin, "This Is Your Brain On Music," Dutton, London, England, 2006, p. 261.
(3) Ibid., pp. 40-1.
About the Author
Thomas Belvedere is the pseudonym of a political consultant to senators, representatives, governors, and the media. He worked for all levels of government, and for all three branches. An accredited expert witness in federal court, he has a Ph.D. in political science.

He authored "The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion."

For his website, go to Thomas Belvedere.
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