Saturday, January 13, 2007

Your Brain on Music

Remember a few weeks ago when I mentioned that I was reading a fascinating book called This Is Your Brain on Music? Well, I'm finished now and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Former band member and then record producer Daniel Levitin got curious about the physical and psychological processes underlying our appreciation of music. To answer his many questions, he got a Ph.D. in cognitive psych with an emphasis on auditory and music processing, then distilled everything he learned into a mostly readable full-length book that goes deep into the research and yet remains accessible to the layman.

Now a recent podcast and collaboration interviews Levitin about the book and gets some book and cd recommendations from him. Definitely worth checking out.

A few of the interesting facts you'll learn from Levitin's book include:
* Americans spend more money on music than on sex and prescription drugs. - page 7
* The Catholic Church once banned music that contained polyphony (more than one musical part playing at a time), fearing that it would cause people to doubt the unity of God. - page 13
* A lot of what we think of as “the Eighties sound” in popular music owes its distinctiveness to the particular sound of FM synthesis (introduced in 1983.) - page 48
* In [the Beatles'] “Yesterday”, the main melodic phrase is seven measures long; the Beatles again surprise us by violating one of the most basic assumption of popular music, the four- or eight-measure phrase unit. - page 110

The book is full of these interesting tidbits. And more than any other book, this one screams for a soundtrack of its own. Levitin mentions several songs more than once to illustrate several points, and while I was reading, I definitely wished I had made a mix of these songs. So for your benefit, I have made a list of almost all of the songs Levitin mentions - with *s noting songs that are mentioned frequently. Do yourself a favor: make the mix before you read. You'll get a lot more out of the book.

"For No One" by the Beatles *
"Honky Tonk Women" by the Rolling Stones
"Maria" from West Side Story
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow"
"Light My Fire" by the Doors
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony *
"Chinese Dance" from the Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky
"Straight Up" by Paula Abdul *
"Every Breath You Take" by the Police
"Back in Black" by AC/DC *
"Hotel California" by the Eagles
"Walk This Way" by Aerosmith
"Jailhouse Rock" by Elvis Presley
"That'll Be the Day" by Buddy Holly
"We Will Rock You" by Queen
"Stars and Stripes Forever" by J.P. Sousa
"My Favorite Things" from the Sound of Music
The theme from Mission:Impossible by Lalo Schifrin
"Take 5" by Dave Brubeck
"Solsbury Hill" by Peter Gabriel
The Surprise Symphony by Haydn *
"One of These Nights" by the Eagles
Fantasy Impromptu, op. 66 by Chopin
"Yesterday" by the Beatles *
"I Want You (She's So Heavy)" by the Beatles
"Lookin' Out My Back Door" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
"Spirits in the Material World" by the Police
"Ode to Joy" by Beethoven
"U Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer
"New Year's Day" by U2
"Time and Tide" by Basia
"Opposites Attract" by Paula Abdul
"Like a Virgin" by Madonna
"New York State of Mind" by Billy Joel
"Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen
"Be Bop-a-Lula" by Gene Vincent
"Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley
"Instant Karma" by John Lennon
"Wake Up Little Susie" by the Everly Brothers
"Twist and Shout" by the Isley Brothers
"Here, There, and Everywhere" by the Beatles
"Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult
"Something Stupid" by Frank and Nancy Sinatra
"Cheek to Cheek" by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
"Hello Trouble (Come On In)" by Buck Owens
"Can't You Hear Me Callin'" by Ricky Scaggs
"YMCA" by the Village People
"I Love the Nightlife" by Alician Bridges
"The Hustle" by Van McCoy
"Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix
"Golden Lady" by Stevie Wonder
"Hypnotized" by Fleetwood Mac
"Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" by Mozart
"Stayin' Alive" by the Beegees
"Shout" by the Isley Brothers
"Super Freak" by Rick James
"Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel
"I'm on Fire" by Bruce Springsteen
"Superstition" by Stevie Wonder *
"Ohio" by the Pretenders
"Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson
"Straight Up" by Paula Abdul
Frank Sinatra, anything from Songs for Swingin' Lovers
"Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin *
"Chelsea Morning" by Joni Mitchell
"Refuge of the Roads" by Joni Mitchell
"Sweet Bird" by Joni Mitchell
"The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin
"One After 909" by the Beatles
The Pathetique Sonata by Beethoven
Mahler's Fifth Symphony *
"Blue Moon" by Frank Sinatra
"Back in Your Arms" by Bruce Springsteen
"Lilies of the Valley" by David Byrne
Ravel's Bolero *
"Koko" by Charlie Parker
"Crossroads" by Cream *
"Sweet Sixteen" by B.B. King
"I Hear You Knockin'" by Screamin' Jay Edwards
"Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard
"Rock and Roll Music" by Chuck Berry
"Kansas City" by Wilbert Marrison
"Rock and Roll" by Led Zeppelin
"Jet Airliner" by the Steve Miller Band
"Get Back" by the Beatles
"I've Got Rhythm" by Gershwin
"Sister Golden Hair" by America
"The Thrill Is Gone" by B.B. King

Bonus: You'll notice if you click on Levitin's cd recs above that one of his top 10 cds is Aimee Mann's Whatever, an album whose virtues I have sung recently on this blog.

Update: An e-mail to Levitin elicited a thoughtful response in which he mentioned that the book's Web site features clips of many of the songs mentioned. (Click on "Interactive Features" and then "Listen to music samples.") While there, also check out the "Media Archive" section for lots more interviews with Levitin.

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