Tag Archives: music

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin: A Review

27 Oct
Note: The folks from Grammarly graciously offered to sponsor this post. I use Grammarly for proofreading online because it can free up more brain power for enjoying music.

Music is everywhere, especially when it has to do with our emotions. Music has the power to move us, physically and spiritually. It is familiarity and exploration simultaneously drawing from experience, atmosphere and energy… spatial points of reference blending in sound.

This is Your Brain on MusicI discovered this book while browsing Audible randomly for something interesting a few weeks back, and I’m glad I did. I found it to be entertaining, well-articulated and just technical enough to make solid points but not so much that I became lost in scientific mumbo jumbo. The author, Daniel J. Levitin states:

“This book is about the science of music from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience – the field that is at the intersection of psychology and neurology.”

Levitin is an experienced producer and studio engineer, who came by his musical appreciation honestly – his father offered to finance a set of headphones as long as the young author promised to use them whenever his dad was home. Sounds like good parenting to me.

Levitin later went on to become a bona-fide brain researcher and Ph.D., incorporating his musical background. This qualifies him to explore what’s happening with the brain in relation to music.

Consider how something as instinctive as “groove” works. Levitin notes: “when we talk about a ‘great groove’ in music… we’re talking about the way in which beat divisions create a strong momentum. ‘Groove’ is that quality that moves the song forward. When the song has a good groove, it invites us into a sonic world we don’t want to leave.”

That’s a pretty darned good description of groove, right there.

Beats and melodies, grooves and lyrics, disconnected ideas forging a shared energy… what happens with music is happening in our brains. So many areas of our consciousness activate together in a musical experience – like performance and interpretation happening at once. I’ve long believed music is the most powerful art form.

The book explores some of the author’s own, and other recent studies conducted on music, musical meaning, and musical pleasure, along with what’s happening in the brain in relation to music, from many perspectives – biological, physical, anthropological, and others.

“Music listening, performance and composition engage nearly every area of the brain that we have identified, and involve nearly every neural subsystem.”

This makes a ton of sense to me, since so many, many hours of my youth were spent listening intently to music closely, over and over, concentrating on untangling its secrets into something I could tap into and impart to others through a shared experience. It’s a beautiful thing, and this book illustrates some of the biological mechanisms that enable such magic. As a self-taught musician, I found it fascinating to consider all this from a physiological and evolutionary point of view.

Above: interview w/ Daniel Levitin on The Agenda with Steve Paikin

Levitin notes that “music is unusual among all human activities, for both its ubiquity and its antiquity.” I agree that there’s something primal about music, something as elemental as the air we breathe, as visceral as any vibration. Like the rhythms of a wind rustling leaves, hoofbeats on a plain, or a brook cascading among the echoes of a forest. It makes sense of the world through organization of energy, with the power to send us elsewhere and take us back home in our minds, something that has been happening since humans first started drumming on logs around a fire, continuing to this day in new and exciting forms.

“As our brains have evolved, so has the music we make with them, and the music we want to hear.”

Just think of a song you know, one that makes you tap your foot to the beat or sing along – maybe just the first melody that pops into your mind, maybe something you heard on the radio on the way to work… in a commercial… in college… last weekend at a friend’s house… years ago when you were just beginning to understand the world — what is that sound? It’s living in your brain right now and likely will be for a long time to come. This book can offer a new appreciation for that kind of art.

Update: author comments & recommendation!

What do you think? Have you ever considered how music affects the brain? What do you consider an example of a song that takes you to a certain place? Let us hear from you in the comments.

What Do You Do When A Song Is Stuck In Your Head?

12 Sep

MusicOnTheBrainI experience music looping in my head on a regular basis, and I’m sure you can think of several times this has happened to you. I’m also a self-taught musician, having learned to play guitar by ear from an early age through careful listening, so, I have a hunch my brain is more active in the “melody-analysis” area, and that I’m prone to experiencing this more often (or at a higher volume) than others. This doesn’t affect my life in any huge external way — I carry on productively and engaged in most any situation. But in a moment of relative quiet, the internal soundtrack often cranks right up.

But Isn’t That What Vocal Hooks Are For?

I’ve found it’s usually key phrases from songs that stand out — like dramatic flourishes or expressive riffs. It’s not always the “pop hook” or vocal element that grabs me, and it can be any obscure track from any time in history, of any genre, not just so-called “popular” music specifically music designed to lodge itself in the brain. Though I’d bet a quantitative analysis of the last 50 years would reveal more bias toward, say, The Andrews Sisters than Metallica.

And then, after a few hours… it’s gone. Maybe I’ve made an effort to listen to the track somehow and exorcise its hold on my spirit. Or, what was there before just gets replaced by another track.

Rick Neilsen of Cheap Trick

Rick Neilsen of Cheap Trick – Power Pop Hook Maker Extraordinaire

Why Does This Happen?

Perhaps as early human cave dwellers, the ability to memorize sound served an evolutionary purpose. Hearing a growl in the distance might have prevented being eaten by a bear, so that would have been a good sound to repeat into memory for an advance warning next time. Or maybe hoofbeats in the distance signaled a tasty herd of beasts just over the ridge. I’m totally guessing, but it’s not implausible given what we understand about the fight-or-flight response.

What Do You Do?

I really wonder if there’s a course of action here. Is there some type of “resolution” or lesson to be learned — or does there even need to be? What purpose does having a song stuck in your head actually serve?

What do you think? Do you find that actually playing the song works to “release” the melody from your brain? Or do you find that songs usually dissipate on their own? Any guesses as to why this happens? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Telecaster Transmissions

26 Aug
Telecaster Transmissions 02

Street Guitarist With Aura, Venice Beach, CA. To listen, click below or visit my Soundcloud page. To see more images like this, check out My Creations at Pinterest.

I noticed this gentleman in Venice Beach making sound shapes with his beat up Telecaster, battery-powered amp, effects pedal with a looping drum beat, and a mop of tangled dreadlocks dangling from his hunched frame. It was absolutely compelling. I took a couple of photos and recorded 40 seconds of audio to document the moment, seeking to make something more elemental than just a video. I respect and support street musicians, and this guy sure had some kind of aura happening that day, too. Enjoy.

Telecaster Transmissions

Photos by me via iPhone, edited in Photoforge2 & TTV PS.
What do you think? Ever dropped change in an open guitar case? Have you ever performed as a street artist? Do you know anyone who has, or what their experience was like? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Musical Poetry: Begin the Beguine

25 Jul
16th note

I especially like 16th notes. Particularly in power pop via tambourine.

I’m an aficionado of many types of music. From edgy alternative, to world beat, to electronica, and so on, I appreciate it in many forms.

One example would be The Andrews Sisters. It might not be immediately obvious that a Deftones and Keith Richards fan would be into each of these artists, but hey. A particular track of theirs I’ve come to love is “Begin the Beguine,” a standard from the wildly gifted Cole Porter. The poetry of the lyrics and the imagery they suggest, along with the snappy beat, brass/woodwind riffs – and of course the boisterous harmonies of the sisters – comes together so very well in this recording. See if you agree:

When they begin the beguine,
It brings back the sound of music so tender.
It brings back a night of tropical splendor.
It brings back a memory evergreen.

I’m with you once more; I’m with you under the stars.
And down by the shore an orchestra’s playing.
And even the palms seem to be swaying
When they begin the beguine.

To live it again is past all endeavor,
Except that tune clutches my heart
And there we are swearing to love forever,
And promising never, never to part.

What moments divine, what rapture serene
‘Til clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted.
And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted
I know but too well what they mean.

So let them begin the beguine.
Let the love that was once a fire remain an ember.
Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember
When they begin the beguine.

Oh yes let them begin the beguine – make them play!
‘Til the stars that were there before return above you.
‘Till you whisper to me once more, “Darling, I love you,”
And we suddenly know what heaven we’re in,
When they begin the beguine.

What do you think? Is there a particular genre of music that you find surprisingly appealing? What about music moves, inspires, or captivates you? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Apple Knows Music, but Pandora’s Box is Already Open

4 Jun
Pandora Radio

A photo of my Pandora stations. I shot this with Hipstamatic and added ambience with the LensFlare app.

When it comes to streaming music, Pandora just works.

It appears Apple may be unveiling a “Pandora killer” music product in the near future. I, personally am unfazed. I enjoy Apple products, and I’m a loyal and satisfied Pandora customer. I’ve tried Spotify, Rhapsody, Last.fm, Rdio, 8Tracks… and while they all have their advantages, none to me match the basic, straightforward appeal of good ol’ Pandora.

Here’s a quote from a recent Business Insider article on what Apple may have in the works:

We’ve dubbed it iRadio and from what we’ve heard so far, it sounds like it will be very similar to Pandora. For instance, Apple plans to offer it as a free service, supported by ads, and it will let users create their own radio stations based on a favorite song or artist,

Pandora Passé? Meh.

I realize some may consider Pandora passé, but for me it just works, whether on a computer or mobile. I’m glad there are other trending options these days because competition is what drives free market growth, but I was an early adopter of Pandora and am religious about thumbs-upping or -downing tracks to get my stations the way I like them. And if I want to buy a song through iTunes (or Amazon), the link is always right there with the track.

Why on Earth would I put the effort into rebuilding the experience through iTunes or whatever Apple calls it? I also like sharing my tracks with comments on Twitter or Pinterest, and running an rss of what I’ve liked at my blog – I seriously doubt Apple’s “walled garden” would allow such flexibility. But hey, I’d love to be proven wrong.

Oh, and does anyone miss Ping? Didn’t think so.

What do you think? Would you be interested in a streaming music product from Apple? Are you a user of Pandora or any other streaming products? What do you like about them and why? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Mixtapes were great. Cassettes? Not so much.

26 May
Grandpa Cassette

Grandpa Cassette” by Zack Finfrock aka Splashed Ink, Los Angeles, CA. Available at Threadless.com

Have you ever toiled at a crappy job only to reminisce years later and think, “you know, that was a pretty fun time?” Our brains have a cognitive bias toward hanging on to the positive and letting go of the negative. And that’s what I believe has been happening with the ever-growing number of modern references to cassette tapes.

Amid all the nostalgia I see these days for mix tapes or the cassette format in general, I’m decidedly glad do be done with tapes now and forever. I do not miss the “good old days” of how music used to be consumed. Here’s why:

Tapes sucked.

There’s no denying the absolute fact that cassette tape quality was capricious at best, and crappy at its core. Even the concept of the “best sounding tape” sounds like an oxymoron. Is it live or is it Memorex? Are you kidding me? It’s definitely Memorex.

Peter Murphy of Bauhaus in a UK Memorex cassette commercial

The chief redeeming quality about cassettes was that they were very easy to copy, so that made sharing and compiling music very straightforward. Mixtapes were something I enjoyed in a sublimated sort of way, since their inherent transience belied their crappy quality. Because, of course, the price for the whole endeavor was progressively eroding quality through generations of copies. But hey – it was still cheaper than actually purchasing new music. And even that never quite felt right – spending good money to hear music in cassette form? It’s like part of the deal was that you understood you were getting ripped off.

Dig the irony of the company who came to dominate mp3 players getting its start thanks to cassettes. Image by Ethan Hein via Flickr.

Dig the irony of the company who came to dominate mp3 players getting its start thanks to cassettes. Image by Ethan Hein via Flickr.

CDs were a welcome end to all this, but even then, record stores and record companies grossly inflated the prices. Why? Because tapes sucked so badly that consumers were willing to pay a premium for everlasting quality. I see CDs as a bleak transition period, followed finally by the now-developed world of mp3s, bringing us to where we are today. I did away with all my CDs in 2002, going full-on digital from that day forward and have never looked back – I even had a Rio before an iPod. And while they do have some memory-biased charm, and despite my years of close interaction with them, I am happy to leave cassettes in the past.

What do you think? Did you ever spend a lot of time with cassettes? Do you have fond memories of doing so? When is the last time you touched a cassette? Have you gone completely to digital music? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Keith Richards’ “Life” Audiobook Review

30 Apr

This month I finally completed listening to the audiobook of Keith Richards‘ autobiography, Life. For me, the best parts were his thoughts about the magic of performance and songwriting, along with hearing the intimate details of how some of my favorite records like Exile on Main Street came together.

“Believe it or not, I remember everything”

Keith Richards LifeThe parts where he gripes at length about Mick Jagger and Brian Jones got kinda tiresome, but I understand why they’re included, and the rest of the book more than makes up for it. For example, his unwavering respect and reverence of Charlie Watts is a constant theme. Also, the guy wrote Gimme Shelter, so, hey.

It’s only Rock ‘N’ Roll

I especially enjoyed the first half of the book, learning about Richards’ upbringing and what makes Keith, Keith. Hearing firsthand what it was like for a young rock ‘n roll band in the early ’60s and just how much these guys all revered American blues music was captivating and enlightening.

As for the audiobook itself, Keith narrates a few chapters at beginning and end; Johnny Depp does a few as well, and the majority is expertly read by Joe Hurley. They even won some formal recognition. All that aside, for an absolutely smashing one-on-one of the man himself doing the talking, definitely check out “Ask Keith” at Keith’s website.

Overall, this was a supremely compelling book, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the history of rock ‘n’ roll or even vaguely interested in the Stones. Because, bottom line: Keith is the real deal.

Musical accompaniment for this post:
Rocks Off, from Exile on Main Street

What do you think? Experienced any good audiobooks lately? What are your thoughts on the history of rock? Let us hear from you in the comments.

Call Me A Hole: Nine Inch Nails + Call Me Maybe = Awesome

5 Mar

I was seriously not expecting to like this as much as I do, but holy cow; this really is great. Nine Inch Nails is some of my favorite music ever, and I also enjoy a good pop hook. This combines them both in a crazy, mind-expanding… and extremely catchy way. I’d love to know what Trent Reznor or Carly Rae Jespsen think of this.

 

Here’s my favorite interpretation so far, via k2b at Gawker:

“First thought – this is a charming combo because it mixes up presumed oil and water in a fun and silly way that makes it hard to take it too seriously. I like fun and silly, and avoid taking things like pop songs too seriously. Second thought – it kind of suits, because I liked NIN as much as anybody in my teens and twenties and still enjoy it from time to time, but not as much, because I am older and do not relate to it so much. And I realized that the mashup doesn’t offend me, because the level of emotional maturity involved in both songs is so similar that the juxtaposition really strikes me as one of style – they are two sides of the same coin. In short: it’s all angsty teenager/YA stuff, even if one is more poetical.”

Call Me A Hole

Image by rsmithing w/pics by Lunchbox LP & ClintJCL via Flickr. Free for use via Creative Commons.

The Connection? The Producer!

Dave Ogilvie, Producer of "Call Me Maybe"

Dave ‘Rave’ Ogilvie at The Warehouse in Vancouver, where ‘Call Me Maybe’ was mixed.
Photo: Adam PW Smith via soundonsound.com

The music to Call Me Maybe was produced by Dave “Rave” Ogilvie — industrial music legend, and collaborator of… wait for it… NINE INCH NAILS! Yes, the one-time Skinny Puppy member now uses his musical powers to assail radio with four-on-the-floor kick drums. My jaw literally dropped when I learned this at boingboing.net via user OtherMichael. Absolutely astounding.

Read the mind-boggling, intricate craftsmanship Ogilvie applied to this track.

What do you think? Are you a fan of mashups, Nine Inch Nails or Call Me Maybe? Let us hear from you in the comments.

December 21, 2012: Your Last Chance To Dance

21 Dec

Apocalypse, Mayans, and… Star Trek?

Here’s a rare NSFW post from me (you’ve been warned), but I find this too entertaining in a ridiculous, party-rocking sort of way not to share: a friend’s metal band made this video about today’s hype-fueling date. It’s crude, juvenile and bizarre – they’d probably take this as a complement – but oddly catchy in the style of Alice Cooper or a less self-righteous Marilyn Manson. I thought I’d do some PR for them today (hope I don’t regret this). Again: you’ve been warned…

[youtube:http://youtu.be/Q1-lUds1IMg?t=13s%5D

 

8Tracks: Music Curated

13 Nov
8tracks - handcrafted internet radio

8tracks: handcrafted internet radio. Their apps are pretty cool, too.

I’ve become fascinated with the playlist curation site, 8tracks. It allows users to upload songs from their personal libraries as playlists with tags and cover art, then share, browse and comment on playlists of other members. All for free. Think of it as cloud-based mixtapes with social functionality included (comments, tags, profiles, etc.).

I’d been a casual listener of the site for a while (and similar sites like Pandora and Blip.fm), but only when hosting an ’80s-themed party recently did I fully get into the full 8tracks experience.

The two above were the perfect soundtracks. Turns out there are scores of ’80s playlists already hand-picked and battle-tested by folks who care enough to share them with the world. And now I’m making my own playlists – which embed beautifully here:

My 8tracks playlists: singles, covers, guitars…

It’s been fun for me to see who likes these and then to check out their playlists myself. As a person who enjoys discovering new music perfectly suited to my tastes, this is rather exciting, as I now have several promising playlists to explore. Heck, TIME magazine even named 8tracks the best site of 2011. If you’re into discovering and sharing music, you should definitely give 8tracks a try.

What do you think? Have you ever used 8tracks? Is there a similar music discovery site that you recommend? Let us hear from you in the comments.
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