Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On the origins of clapping

This question has been on my mind for a while. I always get chills when I'm in a large group clapping. I find it such a strange behaviour. Whether I clap or not cannot be heard by the performers, because all they hear is the thunderous applause of the group, but I feel compelled to do so. Yet when you add everything up, the loudness gives the performers an indication of how much enjoyment they've provided to the group as a whole. The other thing I find funny is that we do not clap in synchrony: it is totally chaotic. Everyone has their own clapping rhythm, which I assume may change depending on the mood but probably falls within a personal bell curve. The other thing I wonder is who started this tradition. I've seen it in every ethnic group I have encountered while traveling, even remote tribes in the jungle with very little outside contacts. I seems as universal as music. And I suspect it shares common origins, which probably were invented independently multiple times. I have heard that even babies seem to inherently want to clap, in which case it might not need to be invented and could be an innate behavior. However clapping can be substituted with feet stumping, but the idea is the same, a loud noise, with a constant rythm. So does clapping precede music, are they even related? Why the hell do we do it?

Does anybody out there know of a good explanation or theory on the origins of clapping?


10 comments:

Anonymous Coward said...

on the "spanish clap" : There are also sections of clapping, but Mack didn’t want your normal everyday slap-your-hands-together kind of clap. Rather it was more restrained and refined: the left arm was held vertically with the hand flat and parallel to the side of the face. The right hand was also held flat and the upper portion of the fingers patted against the palm of the left hand. Only the right hand was to move; the left arm and hand were to remain stationary.

Frank said...

Unnerving is the right word. Being amongst a clapping crowd downright weirds me out.

rob said...

I actually disagree with one point. I find that in a medium sized crowd you can often here some synchronization of clapping amungst the noise. I thought that if group clapping was to continue long enough that a pattern or pace would emerge.

Bayman said...

easiest way for the human body to make noise in a controlled manner without using the voice.

watching a soccer game with a broken arm, i found myself unconsciously clapping my thigh with one arm....doesn't work nearly as well as two hands...

people also bang things with their hands when possible...like tables...think parliament

AC said...

But what intrigues me is the rhythm.

dpo said...

I seem to remember having read once (in a book by Desmond Morris?) that clapping your hands is a substitute for giving the person you're applauding to a pat on the back. In situations where you are too far away from him/her, clapping hands could take its place.

Anonymous Coward said...

I read that too. That clapping comes from the romans who were giving pats on the back "at a distance" to gladiators. However that seems like a pretty lame explanation, as it only accounts for clapping in the western world if it is indeed true...

Bayman said...

The gladiator thing is an interesting step in the evolution of the clap. Were there previous steps? Clearly there was a biological disposition to using the pat/clap rather than something else.

Gladiators could have just as easily chose to rub each other's bellies, pinch their asses or high five with their genitals.

Looking back further, tapping is like banging a drum which earlier humans probably did quite a bit of. As well as banging things with hammers or blunt objects for more utilitarian purposes.

It is also like banging the chest, which some of our primate cousins like to do.

Interestingly chest banging, drumming, back patting, and clapping share similar meanings. They are all social expressions of dominance, victory or success.

All a very nice little tale of natural history, but is there any evidence these behaviors really share a common biological basis? Maybe one could look at whether these different behaviors light up a particular region of the brain?

AC, I think you have inspired me to post-doc in clap biology...

Bayman said...

Assuming you're still in love with female genitals.

Keith Jackson said...

dpo is closest to the truth. In medieval times, performances were done with the villagers circling around the performers. After the performance, villagers could pat the performers on the back and say something like, "Good job!" With the advent of Shakespearean-type plays held on stages built up above the audience, where the performers exited the stage to the rear, the audience no longer had access to give performers a pat on the back. Clapping developed as a symbolic gesture to replace the pat on the back, with one hand representing the person's back. When we clap for someone, we are, in essence, saying "Good job!" or "Bravo!"