What does music do to our brains, or did Einstein really know what he was doing?

August 16, 2016

Einstein playing his violin in 1931, aboard the S.S. Belgenland, travelling from New York to San Diego. Vintage Everyday image.

Einstein playing his violin in 1931, aboard the S.S. Belgenland, travelling from New York to San Diego. Vintage Everyday image. Einstein claimed to get great joy from his violin. Did it also help his physics work?

Albert Einstein played a mean violin. I don’t think any recordings exist, but some say he was good enough to have earned a slot in a decent symphony.

Albert Schweitzer made money to support his work for health in Africa by offering organ recitals.

Thomas Edison liked to hire men in his lab who played instruments. In the midst of high pressure experimentation, they would often take a break as a group, and do a performance just for themselves.

People who make music often claim they do it to relax, but there may be more than mere relaxation going on when we play an instrument or sing. It’s possible making music makes us better at doing other things, too.

Should we be surprised this showed up from the World Economic Forum?

It’s an article by Assal Habibi who is a researcher at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, at the website of WEF, explaining where his group is going to find out how music training affects the way we think and work.

Over the past two decades, several investigators have reported differences in the brain and behavior of musicians compared to nonmusicians.

Music training has been found to be related to better language and mathematical skills, higher IQ and overall greater academic achievement. Also, differences between musicians and nonmusicians have been found in areas of the brain related to hearing and movement, among others.

However, the interpretation of the findings remains unclear. For example, the differences reported between adult musicians and nonmusicians might be due to long-term intensive training or might result primarily from inherent biological factors, such as genetic makeup.

Or, as with many aspects of the nature-versus-nurture debate, the differences may well result from contributions of both environmental and biological factors.

One way to better understand the effects of music training on child development would be to study children before they start any music training and follow them systematically after, to see how their brain and behavior change in relation to their training.

It would involve including a comparison group, as all children change with age. The ideal comparison group would be children who participate in equally socially interactive but nonmusical training, such as sports. Follow-up assessments after their training would reveal how each group changes over time.

Go take a look.

If you’re a teacher, ask whether you should be incorporating more music into your social studies, language or science classes. If you’re a manager or employer, ask whether you should be encouraging your team members to find musical outlets.

If you’re just curious, ask whether you wouldn’t be better off to volunteer in a local choir or band.

Maybe we should all dance to beats of different drummers, and violinsts, and guitarists, and clarinetists and . . .

Three years of this study remain. But these interim results are promising. They support previous findings on the positive impact of music training on brain development.

Our findings suggest that music training during childhood, even for a period as brief as two years, can accelerate brain development and sound processing. We believe that this may benefit language acquisition in children given that developing language and reading skills engage similar brain areas. This can particularly benefit at-risk children in low socioeconomic status neighborhoods who experience more difficulties with language development.

Should we be using this tool to better educate our kids?

Happy birthday, Peter Schickele

July 17, 2010

Peter Schickele is 75 today.

Peter Schickele, a.k.a. P. D. Q. Bach

Peter Schickele, born July 17, 1935

May he live to be a happy, robust, still-composing, still performing 135, at least.

Some people know him as a great disk jockey.  Some people know him as the singer of cabaret tunes.  Some people know and love him as a composer of music for symphony orchestra, or to accompany Where the Wild Things Are.

Peter Shickele, left, and P. D. Q. Bach, together, in happier times.

Peter Shickele, left, and P. D. Q. Bach, together, in earlier and, some say, happier times.

Then there are those happy masses who know him for his historical work, recovering the works of Johann Sebastian Bach’s final and most wayward child, P. D. Q. Bach.

Tip of the old bathtub-hardened conductor’s baton to Eric Koenig.

Typewriter of the moment: Jerry Lewis’s pantomime typewriter (with Leroy Anderson)

May 22, 2010

Ms. Fox’s class had a great time with this video — easy to see why, no?

From “Who’s Minding the Store,” a 1963 Paramount release.

I would have sworn I had a post on Leroy Anderson, but it’s not there to link to; you can check him out on PBS, though.  Another good topic to explore, an oversight to amend.

Jerry Lewis’s pantomime typewriter, always with the Leroy Anderson tune behind it, was one of his most famous comedic routines.  It was very popular in Europe, in both Germany and France.  It’s easy to translate.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Ms. Fox.

Typewriter of the moment: Alan Lomax, folk music historian, 1942

October 18, 2009

Alan Lomax at the typewriter, 1942 - Library of Congress photo

Alan Lomax at the typewriter, 1942, using the "hunt and peck method" of typing - Library of Congress photo

Who was Alan Lomax?  Have you really never heard of him before?

Lomax collected folk music, on wire recorders, on tape recorders, in written form, and any other way he could, on farms, at festivals, in jails, at concerts, in churches, on street corners — anywhere people make music.  He did it his entire life.  He collected music in the United States, across the Caribbean, in Britain, Scotland, Ireland, Spain and Italy.

Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Lillie Mae Ledford and an obscured Sonny Terry, New York, 1944 (Library of Congress Collection - photographer unknown)

Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, Lillie Mae Ledford and an obscured Sonny Terry, New York, 1944 (Library of Congress Collection - photographer unknown)

Almost all of that collection is in the Library of Congress’s unsurpassed American Folklife collection, from which dozens of recordings have been issued.

Born in 1915, Alan Lomax began collecting folk music for the Library of Congress with his father [John Lomax] at the age of 18. He continued his whole life in the pursuit of recording traditional cultures, believing that all cultures should be recorded and presented to the public. His life’s work, represented by seventy years’ worth of documentation, will now be housed under one roof at the Library, a place for which the Lomax family has always had strong connections and great affection.

Were that all, it would be an outstanding record of accomplishment.  Lomax was much more central to the folk revivals in the both England and the U.S. in the 1950s and 19602, though, and in truth it seemed he had a hand in everything dealing with folk music in the English-speaking world and then some.  Carl Sagan used Lomax as a consultant to help choose the music to be placed on the disc sent into space with the exploring satellite Voyager, “the Voyager Golden Record.”

Have you listened to and loved Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo,” and the famous passage, “Hoedown?”  How about Miles Davis, with the Gil Evans-produced “Sketches of Spain?”  [Thank you, Avis Ortner.]  Then you know the work of Alan Lomax, as Wikipedia explains:

  • The famous “Hoedown” in Aaron Copland‘s 1942 ballet Rodeo was taken note for note from Ruth Crawford Seeger‘s piano transcription of the square-dance tune, “Bonypart” (“Bonaparte’s Retreat”), taken from a recording of W. M. Stepp’s fiddle version, originally recorded in Appalachia for the Library of Congress by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax in 1937. Seeger’s transcription was published in Our Singing Country (1941) by John A. and Alan Lomax and Ruth Crawford Seeger.
  • Miles Davis‘s 1959 Sketches of Spain album adapts the melodies “Alborada de vigo” and “Saeta” from Alan Lomax’s Columbia World Library album Spain.

Lomax died in 2002.

Other resources:

“To Hear Your Banjo Play” featuring Pete Seeger, written and produced by Alan Lomax.
Trailer for the PBS P.O.V. film, “The Song Hunter,” by Rogier Kappers

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “POV – Lomax the Songhunter | PBS“, posted with vodpod

Sing out!

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Folk Alley’s 100 essential folk songs

June 22, 2009


First, the list.  Discussion and explanation later:

Folk Alley’s The 100 Essential Folk Songs

1. “This Land Is Your Land” – Woody Guthrie
2. “Blowin’ in the Wind” – Bob Dylan
3. “City of New Orleans” – Steve Goodman
4. “If I Had a Hammer” – Pete Seeger
5. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” – The Kingston Trio
6. “Early Morning Rain” – Gordon Lightfoot
7. “Suzanne” – Leonard Cohen
8. “We Shall Overcome” – Pete Seeger
9. “Four Strong Winds” – Ian and Sylvia
10. “Last Thing on My Mind” – Tom Paxton
11. “The Circle Game” – Joni Mitchell
12. “Tom Dooley” – The Kingston Trio (Trad)
13. “Both Sides Now” – Joni Mitchell
14. “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” – Sandy Denny
15. “Goodnight Irene” – The Weavers (Trad)
16. “Universal Soldier” – Buffy Sainte-Marie
17. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” – Bob Dylan
18. “Diamonds and Rust” – Joan Baez
19. “Sounds of Silence” – Simon & Garfunkel
20. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – Gordon Lightfoot
21. “Alice’s Restaurant” – Arlo Guthrie
22. “Turn, Turn, Turn!” – The Byrds (Pete Seeger)
23. “Puff the Magic Dragon” – Peter, Paul and Mary
24. “Thirsty Boots” – Eric Anderson
25. “There But for Fortune” – Phil Ochs
26. “Across the Great Divide” – Kate Wolf
27. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – The Band (Robbie Robertson)
28. “The Dutchman” – Steve Goodman
29. “Matty Groves” – Fairport Convention (Trad)
30. “Pastures of Plenty” – Woody Guthrie
31. “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” – Gordon Lightfoot
32. “Ramblin’ Boy” – Tom Paxton
33. “Hello in There” – John Prine
34. “The Mary Ellen Carter” – Stan Rogers
35. “Scarborough Fair” – Martin Carthy (Trad)
36. “Freight Train” – Elizabeth Cotton
37. “Like a Rolling Stone” – Bob Dylan
38. “Paradise” – John Prine
39. “Northwest Passage” – Stan Rogers
40. “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” – Eric Bogel
41. “Changes” – Phil Ochs
42. “Streets of London” – Ralph McTell
43. “Gentle on My Mind” – John Hartford
44. “Barbara Allen” – Shirley Collins (Trad)
45. “Little Boxes” – Malvina Reynolds
46. “The Water Is Wide” – Traditional
47. “Blue Moon of Kentucky” – Bill Monroe
48. “No Regrets” – Tom Rush
49. “Amazing Grace” – Odetta (Trad)
50. “Catch the Wind” – Donovan
51. “If I Were a Carpenter” – Tim Hardin
52. “Big Yellow Taxi” – Joni Mitchell
53. “House of the Rising Sun” – Doc & Richard Watson (Trad)
54. “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” – The Weavers
55. “Tangled Up in Blue” – Bob Dylan
56. “The Boxer” – Simon and Garfunkel
57. “Someday Soon” – Ian and Sylvia
58. “[500?] Miles” – Peter, Paul and Mary
59. “Masters of War” – Bob Dylan
60. “Wildwood Flower” – Carter Family
61. “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” – Carter Family
62. “Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound” – Tom Paxton
63. “Teach Your Children” – Crosby, Stills Nash & Young
64. “Deportee” – Woody Guthrie
65. “Tecumseh Valley” – Townes Van Zandt
66. “Mr. Bojangles” – Jerry Jeff Walker
67. “Cold Missouri Waters” – James Keeleghan
68. “The Crucifixion” – Phil Ochs
69. “Angel from Montgomery” – John Prine
70. “Christmas in the Trenches” – John McCutcheon
71. “John Henry” – Traditional
72. “Pack Up Your Sorrows” – Richard and Mimi Farina
73. “Dirty Old Town” – Ewan MacColl
74. “Caledonia” – Dougie MacLean
75. “Gentle Arms of Eden” – Dave Carter
76. “My Back Pages” – Bob Dylan
77. “Arrow” – Cheryl Wheeler
78. “Hallelujah” – Leonard Cohen
79. “Eve of Destruction” – Barry McGuire
80. “Man of Constant Sorrow” – Ralph Stanley (Trad)
81. “Shady Grove” – Traditional
82. “Pancho and Lefty” – Townes Van Zandt
83. “Old Man” – Neil Young
84. “Mr. Tambourine Man” – Bob Dylan
85. “American Tune” – Paul Simon
86. “At Seventeen” – Janis Ian
87. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – Simon & Garfunkel
88. “Road” – Nick Drake
89. “Tam Lin” – Fairport Convention (Trad)
90. “Ashokan Farewell” – Jay Ungar and Molly Mason
91. “Desolation Row” – Bob Dylan
92. “Love Is Our Cross to Bear” – John Gorka
93. “Hobo’s Lullaby” – Woody Guthrie
94. “Urge for Going” – Tom Rush
95. “Return of the Grievous Angel” – Gram Parsons
96. “Chilly Winds” – The Kingston Trio
97. “Fountain of Sorrow” – Jackson Browne
98. “The Times They Are A-Changin'” – Bob Dylan
99. “Our Town” – Iris Dement
100. “Leaving on a Jet Plane” – John Denver

Folk Alley is the name of an online stream from Kent State University’s WKSU, an NPR-affiliated station that offers several genres of music and public affairs programs. A 24-hour stream of folk music is rare, and the programmers probably are among the best qualified to assemble a list like this — even though it is popularly voted. NPR described it:

Folk Alley, the 24-hour online stream of Kent State University’s WKSU, has never hopped on or off any folk-music bandwagons. Which, in turn, makes it a perfect place to explore the genre’s many permutations, from bare-bones acoustic protest music to the many forms of electric roots music that followed. Folk Alley recently spent eight weeks polling its listeners in search of a master list of “The 100 Most Essential Folk Songs.” The results — found here in the form of a printable list and a continuous music mix, streamed in no particular order — are fodder for debate, discussion and discovery.

You can listen to the songs on the list from the WKSU feed, here.

If you are a fan of folk music, you probably have a few bones to pick with the list, no?

It is a modern list.  It is heavy on compositions since 1960 — admittedly a heyday for folk music, and a great time that produced a lot of material to write folk songs about.  I wonder and worry whether some of these songs are really so much in the folk tradition.  I love the Byrds version of Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn,” a song my band covered years ago and which makes me yearn to be back in the band with Leon Anderson shooting out the dissected chords from his electric 12-string guitar.  But it’s a rock and roll song.  It’s a modern composition.

Of course, it’s a modern composition from an ancient tune, Seeger says (“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”) with lyrics adapted from one of the oldest folk traditions we have (Ecclesiastes in the Bible).  A fair reading notes there is a lot of gray area there, with no bright lines.

Still, I think there are notable omissions that really should be there.

For example, the Shaker song, “A Gift to be Simple,” is as much in the folk tradition as anything there.  But it also is the inspiration for a wonderful classical composition by Aaron Copeland.  Shouldn’t it be listed just for that reason alone, let alone its influence on other singers, writers and songs?

One can make  a similar argument for “Greensleeves,” which inspired entire collections of folk versions and classical compositions.

I think history is slighted, too. I can see why “Yankee Doodle” might be overlooked, it’s so ubiquitous.  But should it be overlooked?  How about the Civil War song, “John Brown’s Body.”  What summer camper won’t sing something based on that this year?  Heck, if we’re including Neil Young’s “Old Man,” why not some Irving Berlin?  “Over There” and “You’re in the Army Now, Mr. Jones,” have no less stature in history and folk music.

How about a Stephen Foster tune?  “Camptown Races” alone should outshine 40 or 50 songs on the list.

Jackson Browne’s “Fountain of Sorrow” as a folk song?  If we allow him in, why not the Rolling Stones’ “Salt of the Earth,” even if you have to list it as a Joan Baez performance?

I’m wondering about the list of “100 Great Folk Songs that Didn’t Make the List?”

I’m also looking at my collection, and wondering if I shouldn’t rush to the local CD shops and internet to supplement some of these great songs on the list that I don’t have.  Somebody borrowed my Phil Ochs — 20 years ago?

What great folk songs do you know that are missing from the list, that probably ought to be there?  List them in comments — let’s not let our heritage be reduced to an inadequate list!  (The people at WKSU are really super — check out their own comments list, with a lot of suggestions for tunes that should be there, and others that should not.)

More grist

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Top 25 guitar riffs of all time? This school needs a history class

April 6, 2008

Guitar-X students — from London Tech Music School — picked what they consider to be the top 25 guitar riffs of all time.

You can listen to the top 25 in The Sun’s video below linked to below [I can’t get the video to embed correctly, alas]. The entire list is below that.

The Beeb’s report:

Here’s the full 25 on the list, courtesy of Reuters’ wire:

1. Smoke On The Water – Deep Purple (1973)
2. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (1991)
3. Walk This Way – Aerosmith (1975)
4. Purple Haze – Jimi Hendrix (1967)
5. Sweet Child O Mine – Guns N Roses (1987)
6. Paradise City – Guns N Roses (1987)
7. Ace Of Spades – Motorhead (1980)
8. Enter Sandman – Metallica (1991)
9. Under The Bridge – Red Hot Chilli Peppers (1992)
10. Welcome To The Jungle – Guns N Roses (1987)
11. Run To The Hills – Iron Maiden (1982)
12. Walk – Pantera (1992)
13. Johnny Be Goode – Chuck Berry (1958)
14. Back In Black – AC/DC (1980)
15. Immigrant Song – Led Zeppelin (1970)
16. Wake Up – Rage Against The Machine (1992)
17. Highway to Hell – AC/DC (1979)
18. My Generation – The Who (1965)
19. 7 Nation Army – The White Stripes (2003)
20. Born To Be Wild – Steppenwolf (1968)
21. Give It Away – Red Hot Chilli Peppers (1991)
22. Paranoid – Black Sabbath (1970)
23. Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) – Jimi Hendrix (1967)
24. Eye Of The Tiger – Survivor (1982)
25. Money For Nothing – Dire Straits (1984)
(Editing by Paul Casciato)

A spokesman for the school seemed quite proud that a lot of the top 25 are 20 years old; no one who ever listened to rock and roll between 1957 and 2008 will think this list to be perfect, though. There is too much good guitar riffing absent. The Idolator, obviously more current than I, complains:

As you’d expect from a list based on the opinions of young guitar students, you’ve got some Hendrix, some Angus, three from Slash in the Top 10. But two Frusciantes? A Dimebag? A Knopfler?

. . . Duuuuuuude, no “Stone Cold Crazy?” And if you’re going to bother with Jack White, you have to go with “Icky Thump.” Maybe it’s just my patriotism talking, I think an American school would have made a much fiercer list. One with some Kerry King! Some John Petrucci! Some John Mayer!

John Mayer? Things that pass for value these days! (No Steely Dan licks made the list.)

How about the Beatles? No “Ticket to Ride?” How about the Stones, for the love of blues roots: No “Satisfaction?” This can’t be the list ’cause it doesn’t list the same guitar riffs as me!

No Santana? Nothing from Clapton, not even Cream? “Sunshine of Your Love” doesn’t rate over something on that list? “Layla” isn’t mentioned!? What sort of time warp list warping is that! Where is one of the three dozen great riffs from Motown? Duane Allman? How about the Beach Boys and “Surfin’ USA?”

The list seems limited by genre, too. Surely Wes Montgomery or George Benson, or both of them, should be in there. Somebody’s version of “Malagena” ought to be in there.

Comments are wide open, Dear Readers: What guitar riff ought to be in the top 25, that is not included on that list?


Tuba Christmas, St. Louis!

December 10, 2007

I love a good tuba tune — I love all the low brass.  Tuba Christmas is one of the great joys of this season.  It may be better than the sing-along “Messiah!”

Tuba Christmas at Rockefeller Center, NYC - Voice of America photograph

Photo at left:  Tuba Christmas at Rockefeller Center, New York City, 2006; Voice of America photograph

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has a good slide show on Tuba Christmas in St. Louis this year.

Not to brag, but there are 21 Tuba Christmas events set for Texas this year, equal to the total of California and New York together.  (That link shows events in all states.)

Bluegrass good news: John Starling is back

May 1, 2007

Not only is John Starling back, he’s got his old colleagues from the original Seldom Scene with him, Mike Auldridge and Tom Gray (Ben Eldridge continues to hold down the fort with the new casts of players in the Scene).

John Starling and Carolina Star have a new CD out, “Slidin’ Home.John Starling and Carolina Star, Slidin' Home (cover)

The seeds for this reunion were planted in 2005 at a benefit concert for Eddie Adcock in Washington D.C. “I knew they (Auldridge and Gray) were going to be there, and I called Ben, and he came, and Larry Stephenson was there,” Starling recalls. “We just went up there, Larry sang tenor and the other four of us were original members of Seldom Scene, just went up and did a show. We worked it up backstage, and next thing you know, we had so much fun, we decided to do another couple of shows.”

With encouragement from Massenburg and an attentive audience base, Starling, Auldridge and Gray decided to go into the studio and record a few songs to see how things went. “We liked it and decided to come back to Washington and put together a group that would go out and play it and decided to take a couple of Beltway bandits, Jimmy Gaudreau and Richie Simpkins, who also live in the Washington area and went back and finished the album with that group,” he says.

Rebel Records has a setup to allow listening to the album, at Rebel Records’ site.

Grand music hoax: Plagiarist confesses

February 27, 2007

A fascinating, tragic hoax has unraveled in the classical music world. Dozens of performances by relatively unknown — but great — pianists were pirated, credited to a great pianist dying of cancer, and made internet hits.

The hoax that lives by the internet, dies by the internet, Jesus might have said. A music critic loaded one of the released discs into his iPod list on his computer, and it identified it as being performed by someone else.

Joyce Hatto had retired due to ovarian cancer in the 1970s, but started releasing recordings made at home in 1989. This was not unusual — her husband was a recording engineer. The quietly-released, small-label recordings got good reviews and a faithful audience. As time went on, the recordings became more ambitious, and the quality of the piano playing of the dying woman audibly increased.

Questions arose earlier this year.   Read the rest of this entry »

Belgium breaking up? Who gets the beer?

January 22, 2007

Town Hall in Leuven, Belgium

Town Hall in Leuven, Belgium; image from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Did I really miss this last month?  A television  network in Belgium, RTBF, started out the morning reporting on the breakup of Belgium.  Rather contrary to the rules of hoaxes set up by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre, no mention of a dramatization was made for at least a half-hour.

And of course, it was all a hoax.  The network said they wanted to generate discussion about how Belgium works, etc., etc.   Not everyone was happy with the kickoff to discussion.

I have no particular dog in that fight, though I’m fond of Belgium.  My wife spent a year studying in Louvin (Louvain, Leuven) (before I knew her), and we have wonderful photos.  My own business trip to Brussells was less than 24 hours, though we conducted our business in lightning fashion and were able to spend the evening in a wonderfully lit historic square sampling several brands of beer — okay, many brands.  We all made it to the Oh-Dark-thirty airplane home the next morning (some in better shape than others).

It’s always an eye-opener to learn how little most people know about the country, though it plays a huge role in the European Union, in NATO, and in the history of the 20th century, especially World Wars I and II.

Now it appears even Belgians don’t know whether their nation would break up or not.  Jacques Brel is no longer alive and well.


Song for the Alaska flag

January 12, 2007

Still looking for a comprehensive — and accurate — list of states that have official pledges. The search is occasionally illuminating (as are all genuine quests for knowledge).

For example, I knew Alaska’s flag was designed by a student, Benny Benson. I had not realized that it was adopted in the Coolidge administration, though, and not much closer to statehood in 1959.

More, Alaska has a song to its flag. I suspect the song is sung less often than Texas’s pledge is made (well, Texas requires school kids to say the pledge every day). But it’s a bit more poetic, isn’t it?

Alaska flag, Wikimedia, by Dave Johnson

Alaska’s song to the flag is below the fold. A link to an MP3 recording of the song is available here. Read the rest of this entry »

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