Things got ugly at Madison Square Garden Wednesday night when New York Knicks OG Charles Oakley was wrestled to the floor by a squad of guards after apparently starting a fight with a security official. The former power forward was clearly pissed, but the fans loved it, chanting “Oak-ley, Oak-ley!” as he shoved a guard. A biomusicologist in the crowd would have been more concerned than excited; chanting, in human evolution, is thought to prepare the masses for battle.
In his book Why Do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution, University of Melbourne evolutionary musicologist Joseph Jordania, Ph.D., argues that chanting evolved among hominids in order to induce a “battle trance” — a group mentality that allows them to fight as a collective without fear of pain. Jordania’s theory suggests that Oakley’s fans were rallying together behind him in solidarity, ready to fight for him. and they signaled this to him — and each other — by chanting.
Group members in such an altered state of mind, when they share total trust with each other, emotionally believe that the group cannot be defeated. This unique altered state of mind is supported (and most likely caused) by the powerful neurological substances such as endorphins and oxytocin, which are momentarily released in the brain when a critical survival situation arises.
He refers to the haka dance of the New Zealand Maori — a ritual that’s famously been co-opted by European rugby teams — as a textbook example of chanting (and dancing) that functions as a way of inciting excitement and feelings of solidarity in a group. A large group of humans chanting, stamping their feet, and making threatening movements is not an easy thing to ignore, and he suggests that all of those behaviors add up to an “audio-visual intimidation display,” meant to scare off dangerous enemies. This theory would suggest that the relatively tame chanting that went down at Madison Square Garden is a milder, less intense version of what early humans used to do (most modern humans, after all, need only contend with enemies as dangerous as Knicks security guards).
Jordania seems to be the first scholar to suggest that music-induced group mentality evolved for the purpose of fighting or defense, but the idea that chanting is a method for organizing a group has been studied before. The concept of “entrainment,” more broadly, is used by ethnomusicologists to describe how music in general (chanting is just a subtype of music) helps groups of people synchronize their movements and behavior in solidarity. In a previous interview with Inverse about the role of Ice Cube’s “Fuck Tha Police” in Black Lives Matters rallies, CUNY sociologist James M. Jasper, Ph.D., said that music is a powerful synchronization tool because it incites strong emotion, which creates a bond between people who hear it. In this sense, entrainment happens every day — at Super Bowl parades, at protests, at basketball games in which veterans don’t get into fights — and is a valuable social organization tool, whether or not it’s used to prepare for battle.
Unfortunately (or fortunately) for Oakley, who is thought to have been acting out because of a long-standing beef with Knicks owner James Dolan, the crowd didn’t follow through with battle after inducing a trance. Oakley was carried off and ultimately arrested, while his chanting fans stayed politely behind.