Thriving and Jiving Among Friends and Family: The Place of Music in Everyday Life

by Bill Benzon

We in the West live in societies organized around the idea and practice of work, where work is conceived as activity undertaken for economic gain. While that activity may benefit the worker immediately and directly, as in the production of food or clothing for their own use or to be used by immediate family, more likely the activity is undertaken for money which may then be exchanged to whatever one wishes. The assumption has been that a single adult can earn enough money in 40 hours of work per week to support a family.Cover image: Playing for Peace

Charlie Keil and I argue, in Playing for Peace: Reclaiming our Human Nature, that this assumption is no longer tenable. Too many people work for too long in return for a life that may be materially comfortable, but all too often is precarious, and, in any event, is not very satisfying. We suggest that the activity of music-making has much to teach us about living a satisfying life. This article is adapted from the opening chapter of Playing for Peace.

I stage the problem with a classic essay by the economist, John Maynard Keynes, in which he predicted that by now we would have a 15-hour work week. What happened to that? Then I take up music and dance as the fundamental basis of human nature. Then we take up the concept of a moralnet, which cross-cultural anthropologist Raoul Naroll argued was the fundamental building block of human society. We then conclude where we began, with Keynes.

What Happened to the 15-hour Work Week?

Ezra Klein recently interviewed anthropologist James Suzman in The New York Times. Suzman has done fieldwork among hunter-gatherers and had just published a book, Work, A Deep History from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots. Klein begins by mentioning a famous essay John Maynard Keynes published in 1930, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Keynes predicted, among other things, that by 2030 advanced technology would have solved the problem of scarcity so effectively that people would only have to work 15 hours a week. While Keynes wildly underestimated how wealthy people would become in the future (that is to say, now). But, not only are we not working a 15-hour week, but

in an inversion of past history, the more money you make now, the more hours you generally work. It used to be the point of being rich was to not work. And now we’ve built a social value system. So the reward for making a lot of money at work is, you get to do even more work. [1]

How did that happen?

Here’s what Klein says:

And the overarching argument is that the way we work today isn’t driven by what we need. It’s driven by what we want. It’s also driven by how, socially, we regulate or encourage wants, which is part of where [Suzman’s] research on hunter-gatherers and how they approach this comes in. […] as we’ve gotten richer and built more technology, we’ve developed a machine not for ending our wants, not for fulfilling them, but for generating new ones, new needs, new desires, new forms of status competition. [2]

Klein of course is talking about our ‘keep up with the Jones’s’ consumerist society.

Moreover, as Suzman argues, our society is relentlessly oriented toward the future in a way that robs us of our ability to experience satisfaction in the present. He points out, in the first place, that hunter gatherers are fiercely egalitarian. Goods are shared casually among one’s fellows so that no one ever has a material advantage over another and so cannot use that to exercise power.

Paradoxically, it is the fragile nature of the hunter-gatherer existences that allows them to feel that they live in a generous world. As long as the needs of the day are met, they are satisfied. They see little need to accumulate goods for the future. In contrast, the life of a farmer is very different:

Now the transition to farming was very, very different. Where hunter-gatherers viewed their environments as inherently provident, as generous, as something which gave to them; farming, you have to view your environment as only potentially provident. For it to be provident, you have to invest your labor into it.

But investing your labor into land in order for it to provide you with something to eat involves a time scale. If we use, for example, the early wheats that were grown in the first populations to embrace agriculture in the Levant, you have a seasonal cycle. You plant the seeds in the spring. You then have to nurture and look after the crop and water it and so on and so forth, nurture it over several months, then process it, and eventually, maybe by New Year’s Eve, you might have a loaf of bread out of it. Everything is focused on future rewards.

Workers of the Industrial Revolution, whether on the factory floor or in the executive suite, have inherited that future orientation. Nor should we forget that it wasn’t until relatively late in the Industrial Revolution that most workers were agricultural workers. It is only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that masses of people left the country-side to work in cities.

That is the world we live in today, even as automation and robotics take over more and more jobs and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. We live in a society that has been designed to keep us working so that we can satisfy an unending series of culturally-induced wants. How do we live among plenty? By working ourselves to death? Is that the plan?

We need to get off the treadmill. In the large, we’re killing the earth with this endless panoply of overelaborate and inane goods and services we’re producing and consuming. For ourselves, we’ve got to follow the birds and cultivate the “common glad impulse” that William Henry Hudson extolled over a century ago. We have to remake ourselves into more joyous and generous souls.

Jump for Joy

Musicking, that is to say, music and dance processes, that is the best way for us to jump for joy. And that, jumping for joy, is how a bunch of clever apes became human beings. At least that’s the argument I advanced in Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (2001). The argument is hardly original with me. Darwin believed something like that, and so did Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

At the time I wrote the book it was believed that humans were the only creatures that synchronized their movements in that way. Since then we’ve discovered otherwise. For one thing, videos started showing up on YouTube, which didn’t exist when I was writing the book, where cockatiels could be seen synchronizing to background music. Annirudah Patel took it into the lab and verified that, yes, cockatiels could synchronize to the beat the same way humans did.[3]

A lot depends, of course, on just what we mean by synchronize. Flocks of birds and schools of fish are certainly tightly synchronized when they move almost as one as they the swerve, turn, and swirl. While the neural mechanism is probably not the same as that involved in human drumming and dancing, or cockatiel grooving for that matter, that, in the larger picture, is a secondary matter. The Big Picture is simple: We are creatures of time, all of us. We’ve all got our own grooves and rhythms.

Why, then, you ask, did I bother to argue that grooving is what transformed apes into humans? Because the Big Picture isn’t the only picture. There are many smaller pictures, and they’re all different. Birds may do it, fish may do it, but monkeys and apes do not, not until we came along. Why did we do it? Because we’re smart. And when you’re smart you’re aware. And when you’re aware you sense danger all around you, even when it’s not there. You make up things, your super-smart ever-aware mind makes things up, and likely as not it makes up spooky scaring things. They’re uncomfortable, they make us feel anxious. That’s not good.

Somehow, my just-so story goes, we discovered that by moving together, stomping our feet, banging on a rock or a tree, the anxiety started to go away. As we merged into one larger being, that being was no longer anxious. So we did it again and again and over centuries and millennia we got better and better at it. We learned to synchronize our minds at will and then we began to speak. Now we could talk about those things that scared us, but also those things that pleased us. Weston La Barre argued, in Ghost Dance, that, in effect, we began talking about our dreams and thus became philosophers.

How might that be? Good question. These days we can talk about dreams as emanations from the unconscious mind, or as manifestations of brain chemical. But those are very recent ideas. They make it easy to psychologize dreams, if you will. What would you think about dreams if you couldn’t psychologize them? You’ve got strange memories of things you’ve done and places you’ve been but you don’t know how to connect any of it to the waking world. There must be some other place you go in dreams. And thus philosophy is born, pondering the ways, whys and wherefores of that other place.

Music too takes us to other places. Since we make music when we are awake, we can take these trips with other people. Through music we weave community. And it is only through communities that we can live in the world.

Moralnets in Social Life, and Music too

Near the end of his life, Raoul Naroll, an anthropologist who specialized in cross-cultural studies, published The Moral Order: An Introduction to the Human Situation.[4] It was the first of three volumes he had planned to write in which he synthesized the last quarter of a century of work in cross-cultural study. While he was unable to complete the other volumes, this first one introduced the concept of a moralnet, by which he simply meant the smallest level of social organization beyond the so-called nuclear family. The hunting and foraging band is the prototypical moralnet; within larger-scale societies we have the extended family. Most generally, such a group of kinfolk and friends is a necessary level of social organization in the large societies most of us live in. Moralnets, Naroll’s research indicates, seem weakest in industrialized societies.

Still, we can find them. Douglas Caulkins went looking for them in a study of voluntary organizations in Norway.[5] Why Norway? Because Naroll’s various indices of social health placed Norway at the top, just ahead of Sweden and the Netherlands (p. 44).

Here is how Caulkins characterizes moralnets (pp. 44-45):

As an illustration, Naroll discusses Alcoholics Anonymous, a voluntary, self-help association, as a model for moralnets in contemporary complex societies. The moralnet does not just give support; it also gives direction and a consistent set of values (pp. 137-140). These values are focused as cultural themes, reinforced by tales, narratives, ceremonies, and works of art (pp. 140- 150). Strong moralnets, according to Naroll, provide social ties, emotional warmth, economic support, political support, cultural homogeneity, frequent rituals, charter myths, plausible ideology, emblems of larger groups, punishment of crimes, and “active gossip, shaming those who weaken moralnets” (p. 390).

Norway has numerous voluntary associations in which lots of people participate. These associations serve many of the normative and interactional functions of moralnets “and have played a role in the development of the contemporary welfare state”.

Caulkins conducted field research in a west coast municipality, Volda, which had a population of 7,200 in 1968 and about 160 voluntary organizations serving a variety of “religious, political, sports, recreational, missionary, temperance, service, cultural, youth, and economic” purposes. These groups are common, they are basic to Norwegian social life. What is particularly important for our purposes is the importance of symbolic and ceremonial practices in these organizations (pp. 46-47):

Many organizations maintained records or scrapbooks about their history and founding. Significant anniversaries of an organization were often marked by special publications that glorified the founders and the history of the organization. Virtually all had a ritualized meeting sequence that included singing, recitation, reading of the newsletter, or giving of reports from regional or national conferences, followed by food and coffee. All of these activities help to underscore an organizational ideology. For the six local party branches, these range across the political spectrum. The temperance organizations, fiercely opposing the use of alcohol, and the missionary organizations, with their goal of sustaining the overseas and domestic Christian missions, have a clear ideology.

And so it goes for the Folk Arts Association and various language associations, all of which celebrate traditional ways of life.

Notice the importance of “a ritualized meeting sequence that included singing, recitation, reading of the newsletter” and so forth. As obvious as this may seem, it is important for us to think about it, for this is the connective tissue of social life at the local level. Each of these 160 organizations, populated by overlapping groups of 7,200 people, has its own rituals, its own songs and stories, and no doubt some of them have dances as well. Each person [of those people?] knows the stories and songs appropriate to the one, two, three or more organizations they belong to, in addition to family songs and stories, and songs that are important to them personally.

We are bound together by networks of story and song, of ritual. These networks are strongest at the local level. And it is at this local level that large-scale industrial societies are weakest. We need to strengthen and diversify these ties, ties that bind us to one another in comfort and warmth and thereby provide us with a psychic “home base” from which We the People [evokes Constitution feeling] can venture forth into the world and freely explore the variety of peoples and cultures available to us in this 21st century.

But how freely? Consider these remarks by David Hays, Naroll’s friend and my teacher:

The old order of society and culture—the one that grew from the Renaissance to the 1960s in the West—broke down, I submit, because too many individuals became aware that it could no longer promote health and happiness well enough to justify its prohibition of the diverse and sometimes novel values and ways of life that attracted them. Whether and to what extent the Vietnam War, reliable contraception, television, occupational geographic mobility, the decline of religious belief, and other matters contributed remains to be assessed; in my view, young people grew up to think differently about the world and saw everything in a new way.[6]

We have new worlds to create. Local worlds, each with its own playcare centers, games, stories, songs, myths, poems, jokes and dances and then interconnecting worlds through which these local worlds interact and coordinate their activities in the service of mutual interests in a peacefull, playfilled planet.

What would Keynes think?

Let’s return to that 1930 essay by Keynes: “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” the one where he argued that a 15-hour workweek should suffice for all our economic needs. Listen to Keynes:

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me—those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties—to solve the problem which has been set them.

I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it today, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs.

But then how many of those idle rich learned to sing, dance, and play an instrument in early childhood and so became used to making music with friends and family every week, if not every day, of their lives? Surely that’s a major part of the training we need if we are to make fruitful use of leisure and abundance. Routine joyful music-making is not a guarantee, but surely it’s a step in the right direction.

A bit later Keynes observes:

When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession—as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life—will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semicriminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

Perhaps if we were brought-up in an environment where communal music and dance were the norm, perhaps then we would find it natural to value companionship and conviviality above money.

* * * * *

Note: Playing for Peace: Reclaiming our Human Nature, from which this essay is adapted, is the third book in a series: Local Paths to Peace Today. The first book, We Need a Department of Peace: Everybody’s Business, Nobody’s Job, is about a simple concrete step the United States can take in the direction of peace, to create a Department of Peace in the Federal Government, which was originally proposed by Benjamin Rush in 1793 – and is currently proposed in H.R. 1111 proposed by Rep. Barbara Lee of California. Breaking up large nations and corporations would create a bit more free-play in the world, allowing for greater cultural variety and local autonomy. We lay that out in the second book in the series: Thomas Naylor’s Paths to Peace: Small is Necessary. The goal of Playing for Peace is to sketch out a basic educational regime, a paideia, to use some Ancient Greek terms, that can provide a framework, an ethos or ‘moral character’  in which we can create a new world that is both more just and more joyful.


[1] John Maynard Keynes, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930),” in Essays in Persuasion (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932), 358-373.

[2] Ezra Klein, Why Do We Work So Damn Much? The New York Times, June 29, 2021,

[3] Michael Blanding, We Got the Beat, Tufts Now, May 19, 2014,

[4] Raoul Naroll, The Moral Order: An Introduction to the Human Situation. (1983).

[5] Douglas Caulkins, Are Norwegian Voluntary Organizations Homogeneous Moralnets? Reflections of Naroll’s Selection of Norway as a Model Society, Cross-Cultural Research, Vol. 29 No. 1, February 1995, 43-57.

[6] David G. Hays, “On the Painfulness of Progress,” Cross-Cultural Research, Vol. 28, No. 4, November 1994, p. 326.

My Other Music Posts at 3QD