[Slowhand] It Was 40 Years Ago Today

deltanick at aol.com deltanick at aol.com
Sat Jun 2 00:17:51 EDT 2007

It Was 40 Years Ago Today
By Daniel J. Levitin
The Washington Post
Friday, June 1, 2007; Page A15

Yes, it’s been 40 years exactly since Sgt. Pepper, having labored the
previous 20 years teaching his band to play, arranged for its debut in
full psychedelic regalia. He leveraged a little help from his friends,
notably the vocalist Billy Shears and a riverboat owner named Lucy who
had apparently made her fortune in the diamond business. Pepper
realized that good music-making requires the expanding of horizons. A
recent “trip” inspired him to incorporate tabla and sitar into the
music. The band exhorted us to sit back and let the evening go so that
they could turn us on, musically, lyrically, and blow our minds for the
next several decades.

It has been 45 years since Mitch Miller, head of A&R (artists and
repertory) at Columbia Records, dismissed the Beatles as “the hula
hoops of music.” Will Beatles songs still be loved when baby boomers
are 64? Will they inspire future generations? Or will their music die
with those who became intoxicated by their wit and charisma during the
mind-expanding ‘60s?

A hundred years from now, musicologists say, Beatles songs will be so
well known that every child will learn them as nursery rhymes, and most
people won’t know who wrote them. They will have become sufficiently
entrenched in popular culture that it will seem as if they’ve always
existed, like “Oh! Susanna,” “This Land Is Your Land” and “Frère

Great songs seem as though they’ve always existed, that they weren’t
written by anyone. Figuring out why some songs and not others stick in
our heads, and why we can enjoy certain songs across a lifetime, is the
work not just of composers but also of psychologists and
neuroscientists. Every culture has its own music, every music its own
set of rules. Great songs activate deep-rooted neural networks in our
brains that encode the rules and syntax of our culture’s music. Through
a lifetime of listening, we learn what is essentially a complex
calculation of statistical probabilities (instantiated as neural
firings) of what chord is likely to follow what chord and how melodies
are formed.

Skillful composers play with these expectations, alternately meeting
and violating them in interesting ways. In my laboratory, we’ve found
that listening to a familiar song that you like activates the same
parts of the brain as eating chocolate, having sex or taking opiates.
There really is a sex, drugs and rock-and-roll part of the brain: a
network of neural structures including the nucleus accumbens and the
amygdala. But no one song does this for everyone, and musical taste is
both variable and subjective.

Today the Beatles catalogue is loved cross-culturally -- the product of
a six-year burst of creativity unparalleled in modern music. The
Beatles incorporated classical elements into rock so seamlessly that it
is easy to forget that string quartets and Bach-like countermelodies
and bass lines (not to mention plagal cadences) did not always populate
pop. Music changed more between 1963 and 1969 than it has in the 37
years since, with the Beatles among the architects of that change.

Paul McCartney may be the closest thing our generation has produced to
Franz Schubert -- a master of melody, writing tunes anyone can sing,
songs that seem to have been there all along. Most people don’t realize
that “Ave Maria” and “Serenade” were written by Schubert (or that his
“Moment Musical in F” so resembles “Martha My Dear”). McCartney writes
with similar universality. His “Yesterday” has been recorded by more
musicians than any other song in history. Its stepwise melody is
deceptively complex, drawing from outside the diatonic scale so
smoothly that anyone can sing it, yet few theorists can agree on
exactly what it is that McCartney has done.

The timelessness of such melodies was brought home to me by Les
Boréades, a Quebec group that has recorded Beatles music on baroque
instruments. The instruments give the sense that you’re hearing Bach or
Vivaldi, and for moments it’s possible to forget that you’re listening
to Beatles songs. We’re so used to hearing Beatles songs that for many
of us they no longer hold any surprises. But when they’re stripped of
their ‘60s production and the personal and social associations we have
with them, you can hear the intricate and beautiful interplay of
rhythm, harmony and melody.

On the bus recently the radio played “And I Love Her,” and a Portuguese
immigrant about my grandmother’s age sang along with her eyes closed.
How many people can hum even two bars of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony,
or Mozart’s 30th? I recently played 60 seconds of these to an audience
of 700 -- including many professional musicians -- but not one person
recognized them. Then I played a fraction of the opening “aah” of
“Eleanor Rigby” and the single guitar chord that opens “A Hard Day’s
Night” -- and virtually everyone shouted the names.

To a neuroscientist, the longevity of the Beatles can be explained by
the fact that their music created subtle and rewarding schematic
violations of popular musical forms, causing a symphony of neural
firings from the cerebellum to the prefrontal cortex, joined by a
chorus of the limbic system and an ostinato from the brainstem. To a
musician, each hearing showcases nuances not heard before, details of
arrangement and intricacy that reveal themselves across hundreds or
thousands of performances and listenings. The act we’ve known for all
these years is still in style, guaranteed to raise a smile, one hopes
for generations to come. I have to admit, it’s getting better all the

Daniel J. Levitin, a former record producer, is a professor of
psychology and music at McGill University in Montreal and the author of
“This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.”

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