Mickey Hart on the Power of Live

Dean Budnick on July 6, 2020
Mickey Hart on the Power of Live

In this moment of social distancing and turmoil, many of us are yearning for the collective inspiration and joy that is unique to the concert experience. In a special Power of Live section that appears in our new issue, a number of singular voices chime in with their thoughts on the importance of in-person gatherings.

 “We’re multidimensional rhythm machines embedded in the universe of rhythm—it’s as simple as that,” observes Mickey Hart. “The species needs music, it needs sound, it needs rhythm. We’re coded for it. We don’t have much choice since we’re made up of rhythms ourselves.” His remarks reflect a lifetime of experiences—from his years with the Grateful Dead to his current role in Dead & Company and his pioneering world-music pursuits. Hart has also explored the topic in his books Drumming at the Edge of Magic, Planet Drum and Spirit Into Sound, as well as through his scientific research into the impact of rhythm on diseased and damaged brains.

During this moment of quarantine, some people have described a physical longing for live music. What’s your response to that?

Many people don’t appreciate the power of music. When it’s ripped away, all of a sudden, you start to think, “Wow, what’s missing in my life?” That’s the thing about music: It allows people to engage in life.

Remember, we’re a vibratory animal. The big bang was the inspiration for the whole universe 13.8 billion years ago and it’s the glue. So, you’re made up of “star stuff” as they say, and that sets your brain. Your brain is the master clock; that’s what music is. So it’s the cognitive part of you that you are missing. It defines our species. It’s not a pleasure; it’s a necessity.

Music is just controlled vibrations—and the universe started through vibrations. That’s a lot to take away from people. It’s one of the greatest ingredients in this thing we call life. Without music, the human race would be in a lot worse of a place. I see life in rhythmic terms because I’m a rhythmist primarily. Life is filled with rhythms: good rhythms and bad rhythms. A bad rhythm is stepping in front of a car; a good rhythm is having a happy life or a healthy life. When you’re out of rhythm, you’re not as healthy and things aren’t as efficient.

There’s also that community aspect, which you’ve experienced over the years.

We’re groupists. Humans like to group; we’re more powerful in groups. So take away music, and you’re not just taking away the sound, you’re taking away everything that goes around the music too. We dance with life, and that’s partly why we go to concerts. Music allows us to dance, which is really important these days.

The other thing about music is that it brings you into the now, into the moment— not the past, not the future, but the now. That’s also something that you’ll really miss when it’s yanked away. When you’re in the sphere of music, those cares go away, at least for the time that the music is playing.

Playing live is important. For me, it’s more than important—it’s necessary. Playing in the studio is one thing, but when you play with an audience, not to an audience, that’s a whole different ball of wax. Playing live in front of people is just so energizing for both the audience and for the band. It serves a great purpose in civilization.

Can you talk about the impact of music on the mind?

The brain is a rhythm machine. There are billions of electrical signals going on in the brain at any given nanosecond. It’s the most extraordinary instrument and tool that we know on the planet. Life is really all about cognition, about how things are recognized and how we react to them. That’s what music is all about: neurologic function. You see these gamma waves and beta waves associated with certain states of mind. Consciousness comes out of gamma waves and music is full of gamma waves. What’s being studied now is neurologic function—music in the mind, music in the brain, how you can use it for preventative medicine. That’s being examined by people like Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at UCSF, and Nina Kraus at Northwestern.

I sit here making drones every day. I wake up every day and my meditation is musical, so I drone. I meditate and drone and try to create these positive wave forms. We even have a little group on Zoom and we find time each week to work on drones. These drones are deep and low so they affect these brain waves. On the low-end, below 40 or 50 hertz, is where you find the gamma, which is very valuable. Everybody is looking at what the beta and gamma do— how to reach them and how to perform with them. It’s like a dance.

Music feeds the brain; you’ve gotta mind your head and, if you don’t, you’ll fall into disrepair. A happy brain is a good brain and that’s a really important thing to remember.

You mentioned that playing live is important to you. What are you doing in lieu of a Dead & Company tour?

I play every day for at least three hours, even on Sundays, to stay in the game. You lose your skills after you don’t practice for a long time, no matter who you are. So I’m hoping that we’re all keeping our skills up until the day we can actually go out and play. Can you imagine what it’s like practicing for 70 years and then being told that you can’t go out and play?

Can you imagine all the work that musicians put into their art and then, all of a sudden, that’s ripped away? There’s an enormous vacancy there.

Being a musician is really a hard life and most are struggling. Right now, it’s hitting our community tremendously. There are a few of us who are lucky—we’ve been practicing the art for years and years. For the youngsters who are coming up, it’s really difficult. But you have to stay at it all the time. You can’t just sit back and drink a beer and watch TV or whatever. You’ve got to be at it constantly or else it’ll slip away.

I see life in terms of rhythm and it’s not just about music. But you can look at life as a musical instrument as well—how you play it is how you look at life. Music is a really important part of this developing species. It’s part of our DNA. Musicians are coded to make music; they make it because that’s really who they are.

Now, we are developing a whole new way to transmit this energy. The music that’s going to come out of this is going to be revealing. I can’t wait to hear what artists are doing now. They’re writing, they’re composing, they’re practicing. I think that this will bring more light than darkness when it’s over—and it will be over. Then we can get back to making the world a better place because that’s what music certainly does. It doesn’t make it worse; it makes it a lot better. We’re going to make it the best we can because that’s what musicians do.