Drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain

And the beat goes on, the beat goes on
Drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain
La de da de de, la de da de da — Sonny and Cher

Everyone’s favorite singing duo (you know, the ones who tortured Bill Murray with the sure knowledge that today was going to be a lot like yesterday) were apparently right about that brain rhythm beat thing.

According to this story at NPR.org, our brains are filled with little bitty clocks that all beat at different rhythms.  You can imagine what it would sound like to be in a room where everyone in the room is given a drum and starts beating out whatever rhythm they feel like doing.  You get chaos.  But the strange thing is that when these people start listening to each other, they start to coordinate with each other, and pretty soon the rhythmic chaos becomes less chaotic.  Our brains apparently do the same kind of thing.

This is important because when brain cells fire at the same time, the connections between them get stronger, which is critical to how memories are formed and how we learn things.

We do things, such as walking, or dancing, that are repetitive and rhythmic. And when people who are afflicted with diseases that affect the nervous system, such as Parkinson’s Disease, are exposed to music, it can help to lessen the symptoms of the tremors which are basically caused by out-of-sync rhythms in the brain.

Go read the article at the link up there, and prepare to be amazed, yet again, as to how important music is to the proper functioning of our physical bodies.

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Thanks to player pianos, anybody can do a cover song

I found a fascinating story over at Slate.com, in which one of the bigger blunders ever made by the U.S. Supreme Court occurred, involving a judgment about the copying of piano music onto player piano rolls.

Player pianos used to be a big deal.  I guess they were sort of the iPods of their day, except that they didn’t fit in your pocket, and they didn’t come with headphones.  Well, those old slimy player piano roll companies had no compunctions whatsoever against taking other people’s songs and copying them on to piano rolls.  In a lawsuit brought by “those writers of glorious songs” (to quote a Barry Manilow lyric, and no, it’s not from “I Write the Songs”) against the piano roll companies, the Supreme Court eventually ruled that because the versions of the songs that had been converted to piano roll “format” weren’t readable by humans, they weren’t really copies of the songs at all, but another animal completely.  As a result, the song writers were unable to demand any royalties for the copies made by the piano roll companies.

A year later, Congress got around to fixing the mess the Supreme Court had made by enacting The Copyright Act of 1909, which mandated that copies of songs could be made, provided that a very small fee was paid to the original song writer.

As a result, what might have been originally a good song as written can be ocassionally turned into a great song when somebody “tweaks” the original just a little bit and turns it into something new.

Which takes us back to this post on stealing “like an artist”, and this post on transformations.  The challenge I have, as a ward and stake organist, is to take the hymns we’ve all been singing in church on Sundays for all our lives, and tweaking them just a bit so that the congregation is forced to sit up and take notice that “he did something different there, it was different from the way he played that chord in the first three verses”.  It doesn’t take a lot of effort — in fact, I’m getting to the point where I have enough confidence in my ability to improvise that I’ll just throw in a completely made-up-on-the-spot interlude before the final verse of a hymn without any thinking or planning whatsoever before we start singing the first verse.  And my ward really seems to like it when they hear something just slightly out of the ordinary during the hymn.

As I see it, it’s how I magnify the calling.

And the best part is, it’s fun.

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Music as a torture device

Over at BusinessInsider.com, there’s an article about songs that the CIA used as part of their — ahem — enhanced interrogation program.  The complete list in the article is eleven items long.  Seven of the songs on the list I’m completely unfamiliar with, so I have nothing to offer about them, but here are the four on the list that I have heard before and would recognize in a heartbeat:

  1. I Love You (the Barney the purple dinosaur theme song)
  2. Saturday Night Fever by the Bee Gees
  3. The Meow Mix theme
  4. We Are The Champions by Queen

Given the presence of Barney’s big addition to the music pantheon, I’m somewhat surprised that “It’s A Small World” (from the Disney ride) isn’t up there somewhere.

As for the Bee Gees making the list, I suppose that high falsetto they do could get to you after a while.  To be fair, there is no single song titled “Saturday Night Fever” by the Bee Gees, so I presume this really refers to just about any song by the Bee Gees from said film.  Is it possible that “Stayin’ Alive”, played for a long enough period of time and at a sufficiently high volume could make one wish he were dead?

Madison Avenue’s addition to the list, the Meow Mix jingle, just makes me laugh, because my youngest daughter will break out into song at the drop of a hat when she’s home, and odds are that this song — or at least a snippet of it — is what will pop out.  I’m not sure she’s even seen one of the original Meow Mix commercials, but probably knows this only from watching an Austin Powers movie.

Here’s everything you could ever want to know about the Meow Mix jingle, from the Wikipedia:

“The Meow Mix Theme” was written by Shelley Palmer in 1970 and performed by a singing cat. The idea came from Ron Travisano, at the advertising agency of Della Femina Travisano and Partners, who had the account with Ralston Purina in 1974. Travisano put together film footage with editor Jay Gold, looping images of a cat to make it look like it was singing. The music was then composed by Tom McFaul of the jingle house Lucas/McFaul, one of the major jingle-composing houses at the time. Working from Travisano’s film, McFaul wrote and produced music to fit, with the actual meowing performed by professional singer Linda November.

Travisano then came up with the idea of adding English subtitles, along with a bouncing ball pointing out the words.

Curiously enough, Jerry Della Femina, eventual chairman of the ad firm mentioned above wrote a book about the advertising industry which is claimed to have been the inspiration for the cable TV series “Mad Men”.  Only appropriate, I guess, given that repeated listening to the Meow Mix song is supposed to send you over the edge.

And, finally, as for We Are the Champions, I really don’t have much to say, except to wonder if the point was to “rub it in” to those forced to listen to it: is the message of the song “we’re better than you”?  Or maybe the electric guitar solos get to you after a while.

I suppose the saddest thing about music used as a torture device is the idea that art should be used in this way at all.  But evidently some songs kind of lend themselves to this sort of (ab)use.

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If 7/4 time is weird, how weird is 13/16?

I wrote once here about how, back in a high school music class, our music teacher played a bit of recorded music for us and then asked us to figure out the time signature.  I identified it as being in 7/4 time, which apparently impressed some people to such an extent that they still remember me having done this to this very day.

Well, I’m glad to see, from an article at slate.com, that the challenge of figuring out the time signatures in weird pieces of music is something some people like to do.

It’s been determined that some of the score for the original “Terminator” movie was written in 13/16.  See this link for more info.

I don’t know if I could have figured this one out on my own or not, but now that I know the answer, I’ll never know.

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“Rhapsody in Blue” is 90 Freaking Years Old

There are a few magical, musical moments I can recall that set me on my lifelong course as a self-taught pianist and organist. One of them occurred when I was in the 6th grade at George C. Payne elementary school in Campbell, California.

Most of the time, my 6th grade’s class’ exposure to new knowledge would come from the personal efforts of Mrs. Jones standing up in front of our class delivering the lecture of the moment; she was one of the two 6th grade teachers at our school. Occasionally she would wheel in a movie projector and we would watch something about South America for social studies, or maybe something about science. (There were no DVD players or TVs used in school back in those days; mounting a movie reel and threading the film properly through the projector was an adventure in itself. Heaven help you if the film broke at some point during the presentation.)

But one day, Mrs. Jones announced that we would be listening to a special radio program about music over the intercom system as it was piped into our room from the school office; I presume the other 6th grade class next door to ours was listening in as well, but I don’t know this for certain.

I don’t remember much of what we were exposed to in our musical education that day, but what I do remember was when “Rhapsody in Blue” was played during the program. Suddenly, here was something that struck me as being eminently worth listening to. I don’t remember how much of it was played for us; the piece is, if I’m not mistaken, at least 20 minutes long, and I doubt they devoted that much time to it out of the the entire broadcast.

But that day, I came away from class knowing that I had just heard “something wonderful” (in the words of Dave Bowman in “2010″ when he warns Heywood Floyd that big doings are about to take place on Jupiter). I’ve tried to memorize the piano solo version of “Rhapsody”, and because parts of it are so difficult to play, I haven’t practiced it for a long time, and now I can only get so far into the piece from memory before I hit a blank wall and have to stop.

But thank you, George Gershwin, for the challenge that it is to attempt to play it, and for the magic that “Rhapsody” is to the ear.

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What are these “protected” posts?

My apologies to those of you (I know bloglovin.com was able to see the entries) who are wondering about the “protected” posts on my site.  They were a series of Christmas Stocking Hunt clues intended solely for the use of my family, and now that Christmas has come and gone, so are the posts.  So any links to them that you might find somewhere will just end up at the ol’ internet dead end.

As Maxwell Smart would say, sorry about that, Chief.

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Singing vs. speaking

According to the story at http://www.today.com/health/if-gabby-giffords-still-struggles-speak-how-can-she-sing-2D11888324, one side of our brain is responsible for singing, and the other side handles normal speech.  If one suffers from some sort of brain damage on the side that controls regular speaking, sometimes the brain can be “rewired” to have the singing side take over for the speaking side by “singing” what one wants to say.

Interesting how our brains are just built to handle music differently.

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Chicago’s magical piano

Clearly, somebody with a line of sight to the piano is actually playing, but this would be a lot of fun to do.  Let the people walk by and then do musical impressions of them, or play duets as happens a couple of times here.

I particularly like the accompaniment to the guy waving his arms while talking on the cell phone.

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My attempt to be Tom Hanks for the evening

Tonight was the annual ward Christmas party/dinner, and to be honest, I hadn’t originally planned on going.  Those in charge of the event were really pushing the ward members to turn out for the thing; the activities committee had decided to do a “Polar Express” kind of theme in order to try and kick start everyone’s interest in going. Everyone in the ward got sent little golden translucent tickets to the event which granted them a brief ride on the Polar Express before being granted admission to the cultural hall, where the youth of the ward had been recruited to wear Hot Chocolatier chef outfits and elf costumes.

Just this last Sunday, I got asked to be one of the two train conductors for the event; I was given to understand that my recent community theater involvement was at least partially responsible for someone thinking I might make a good conductor.  I’ve gotten to be somewhat well known in the ward for my amateur thespian proclivities, thanks to a supportive Sunday School instructor who always made sure that the class knew when I was acting in a community theater play and what it was about.

Adding to my reluctance to participate, it was my birthday tonight, and though I knew I didn’t have any money to go and do anything special, I was still a little hesitant to give up “my” day to spend it dressing up as a character in a movie I hadn’t really seen but a couple of times, and certainly not recently.  Fortunately, the other requested conductor (we had two train cars running in parallel, kind of like a ride at Disneyland, so as to not make everybody wait too long to get into the building) was able to procure enough costume pieces, props and a fake mustache, to give me enough credibility as a conductor on the Polar Express to make the thing fun.  If you can get a decent costume, it can hide a multitude of sins and give a boost to one’s flagging enthusiasm.  I’m what you would call “portly” (if you’re being polite) and am a bit of a difficult fit when it comes down to finding me a costume.

So I spent some time over the last couple of nights trying to work up a semi-decent vocal imitation of Tom Hanks’ character in the movie, and I think it came off OK.  Sounds a little bit like Don Adams’ old Maxwell Smart character, but in small doses — 5 minute’s worth — it’s not too irritating.  Or so I hope.  Checked everybody’s ticket, pretended to lose my balance here and there as the train “rolled” along, and just generally hammed it up.

Speaking of ham, that was on the dinner menu, so I guess it was entirely appropriate.

So, despite my initial reluctance, I’m glad I did it.  Special thanks go to Brother McFadyen, who, as I understand it, was the original Wally Kessler in “Saturday’s Warrior” way back when, and who was the other conductor who did the hard work of coming up with the costume pieces for me.  He definitely gave me the needed boost to make me want to do more with this than to simply go through the motions.

Wonder what they’ll want to do next year… ?

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A musical coincidence

Sometimes I browse the www.psychologytoday.com website because there inevitably is an article about music that will show up if I browse long enough.  Today’s browsing found this one: Does Music Help Memory?

The article explores the conjecture that listening to music while studying helps one remember better what’s being studied.

Whether or not this is true, well… depends.

Results indicated that people with more musical experience learned better with neutral music but tested better with pleasurable music. The opposite was true for people without music training.

If you have musical training, then the thinking is that listening to non-neutral music (music you enjoy, in other words) while studying is a distraction, and as we all know, distractions are not good.  If you have musical training (and I think I can vouch for this on some level), when you’re listening to music, you don’t just listen, you analyze.  You try and figure out what the music is doing: what was that chord progression?  What’s the drummer doing there?  Is that a bassoon or an oboe?  Ooh, that was an interesting key change!  Did we just briefly change time signatures there?

And so on.

If you don’t have any musical training, then your brain (or so goes the theory) isn’t using up so much bandwidth doing analysis of the music, and more effort goes into loading what one is studying into the brain.

And that makes sense to me.  I listen, on occasion, to songs on my personal Spotify playlist while I’m at work, and I’ve wondered whether or not this is a distraction for me.

And so I moved on from that article to an article over at www.thedailybeast.com: How I Write: James McBride, The New National Book Award Winner For Fiction.

Given that I’m writing for my blog, I’m always curious what other writers have to say about their methods and practices when it comes to putting ideas to paper.  And I come across this Q&A exchange (edited for brevity’s sake, emphasis is mine):

Q: Since you’re a musician, is there anything you like to listen to while writing?

A: No, I don’t listen to music when I write. I go through periods listening to specific types of music. Because I’m a musician, listening to music is…it’s a bit like work for me. A little bit. So I don’t listen to any music at all. I don’t mind cacophony when I write. I grew up in a house with a lot of kids, brothers and sisters. So I don’t mind a lot of talking, yelling, playing. I can tune most of that out.

So I just found it very interesting that I would find this article about whether listening to music while studying (or, by extension, working where the work is largely one of mental effort) is helpful or not, and then almost immediately find another article — purely by accident — in which the findings of the first article seem to be confirmed by someone else’s comments.

So, all you trained musicians out there: by virtue of your training, you have removed yourselves from the company of those who can enjoy listening to music that you like while you study.

Bummer.

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