Neither of my parents were particularly musical, although my father had a lovely singing voice and was a great whistler. My mother not so much. I vaguely recall big band music played on a staticy, low-fi AM radio when I was really little, but it wasn't until we got an FM -- a hulking Philco in a Bakelite case -- that I became aware of the ability of music to transport me, especially vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, whom my father would sometimes accompany in his post-cocktail hour beatitude when she sang Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye" or "You Is My Woman Now" from Porgy and Bess.
Many years on, I look back on a life in which music has been a nearly constant companion, and when that life was especially dark, sometimes my only companion. But until fairly recently, as relatively well read as I am on music, musicians and even a little music theory, I never considered my own role as the listener.
Why does music feel so good to me? Why do I feel so much?
Why can I listen to Glenn Gould's recording of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" yet again and hear even more distinctly not just the notes but the spaces between the notes in this astonishing series of classical piano riffs?
Why can I listen to the Allman Brothers segue from "Whipping Post" into the opening cords of "Mountain Jam" on their classic 1971 Fillmore East concert recording yet again, know what's coming, and the hair on my neck still stands up?
Why can I listen to Joni Mitchell singing her anthem "Amelia" yet again and see with even more clarity
the hexagram of the heavens, it was the strings of my guitar."
Why can I listen to Charlie Parker honking his way through "Body and Soul" yet again and still hear something I missed before? And understand why Bird's is not just another rendition of a lovely jazz standard, but the very essence of bebop?
It was time to figure out why.
Your Dopamine Is Showing
The fundamentals of that why are fairly well understood. Listening to emotive music causes the brain to release dopamine, a feel-good chemical involved in addiction (ohmygawd!), which puts music right up there with sex, drugs, gambling and good food. This, neuroscientists explain in belaboring the obvious, is why music has been such a huge part of human history.
"You're following these tunes and anticipating what's going to come next and whether it's going to confirm or surprise you, and all of these little cognitive nuances are what's giving you this amazing pleasure," explains Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal. "The reinforcement or reward happens almost entirely because of dopamine."
Salimpoor and her colleagues have linked music-induced pleasure with a surge in intense emotional arousal, including changes in heart rate, pulse and breathing rate. Along with these physical changes, she says people often report feelings of shivers or chills, a not uncommon experience for myself, someone who can become gelid upon hearing accordion or jazz violin, as well as roots reggae, because of the minor chords and swinging backbeat that suffuse that genre.
(A disclaimer: While I can get all gooey over accordion, about a half an hour of polka music a year is plenty for me, while I can never get enough jazz violin, whether it is Joe Venuti or Jean-Luc Ponty, or roots reggae, whether it is the inestimable Bob Marley and his Wailers or other roots trailblazers like U-Roy and King Tubby.)
Just anticipating those opening notes of "Mountain Jam" can get the old dopamine flowing.
Music And The Moment
If you feel somewhat underwhelmed over the neuroscientific explanation for that why, join the club. Reading several books on listening and music in general didn't do it either; most were so dense you could stand a tuning fork in them.
Then I stumbled on How Music Works by David Byrne. Yes, that David Byrne. The founding spirit of the new wave band Talking Heads, he of collaborations with Brian Eno and more recently with the singer St. Vincent, shovels aside the claptrap, writing:
"You can't touch music -- it exists only at the moment it is being apprehended -- and yet it can profoundly alter how we view the world and our place in it. Music can get us through difficult patches in our lives by changing not only how we feel about ourselves, but also how we feel about everything outside ourselves. It's powerful stuff."
The Snob Is Outted
As noted, I had grown up listening to standards -- that good old American Songbook -- as sung by Ella and others, and as a youngster would lie in bed on too-hot-to-sleep summer nights singing or humming "Peg O My Heart," "Shine On Harvest Moon," and "Stardust" in particular. But as my musical tastes grew more sophisticated (or so I assumed in a decidedly snobbish way), I abandoned standards because they were old fashioned. Corny. Uncool.
Apparently like a goodly number of people, including Byrne, I was roped back in by Willie Nelson's 1978 cover of "Stardust" and his album of standards by the same name. I had adored Nelson for years and once smoked a joint with him in Austin, but what (additionally) blew me away about his take on "Stardust" was truly understanding for the first time how a gifted artist can give a song their own unique interpretation. This, in turn, taught me a lesson: Great music, and in particular great music like Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust," which has perhaps the sweetest melody ever written, becomes even greater in the hands of a master like Nelson.
(The same can be said of many other songs, including to name a very few, Suzanne Vega covering the Grateful Dead's "China Doll," Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop covering Cole Porter's "Well Did You Evah," and perhaps the greatest example to my ears, Jimi Hendrix covering Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower.")
While I restrained myself from calling out "Play Stardust! Play Stardust!" when I saw Nelson and his band open for the Grateful Dead a couple of times in subsequent years, I silently thanked him for outting me as a musical snob.
Missing The Beat
It was a lovely summer evening, stars flowed over our heads like a celestial river, and the sounds of Ahmad Jamal's Blue Moon album wafted through the windows out onto the deck behind the mountain retreat. We had been joined by our friend Bud Nealy.
Most of us are lucky to be pretty good at one thing. Bud has been very good at three: As a photographer, a maker of knives and as jazz drummer who has played with some of the greats. "Who's that?" he asked, his drummer's radar locking onto the complex rhythms on Blue Moon, rhythms which were underscored by a drummer and two percussionists.
"Jamal's so damned rhythmic, it's how he see's it," Bud said, noting that like many great musicians, Jamal and his ensemble were playing with the beat. Which is to say before, after and pretty much everywhere except on the beat. Like the great band leaders, Jamal understood how to direct his ensemble, speeding it up or slowing it down. The result was that it really swung.
(Great singers do the same thing with the beat. Like Willie Nelson.)
Byrne cites an experiment performed by a neuroloscientist who also happens to be a musician. This guy had a classical pianist play a Chopin piece on a Diskclavier, a kind of electromechanical player piano. The piano "memorized" the keystrokes and could play them back. The scientist then dialed back the pianist's expressiveness until every note exactly hit the beat.
"No surprise, this came across as drained of emotion, though it was technically more accurate," Byrne writes. "Musicians sort of knew this already -- that the emotional center is not the technical center, that funky grooves are not square . . . "
Got It Live If You Want It
It should go without saying that hearing music live is not an objective phenomenon, but I'll say it anyhow.
I have heard the Grateful Dead and their various spinoff bands in live performances a hundred or so times beginning in 1969. The original Dead was a band of legendary unevenness. The great shows were truly awesome and the off shows not that bad. And all of them social as well as aural events. I'm of a certain age in the Deadhead universe who believes that the Dead were at their creative peak in the 1970s (the year 1977 being the peak of the peak) and saw the band perhaps 60 times in that decade.
The last time I saw the original Dead -- at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1989 -- is memorable not so much for the show as a lesson learned that in retrospect offered insight into that why from another perspective.
I thought the show was only okay, but as we approached the Lincoln Tunnel on the ride back to a friend's home in North Jersey, a guy in his early 20s riding in the front seat turned to me and, breaking his silence, said that while he had gone to church much of his life, it did not begin to compare to what he had just experienced -- his first Dead concert.
An experience I found to be kind of meh was, to this guy, "mesmerizing," "electric," "profound" and most of all, "spiritual." He said that he had wept at one point. While our views of the show differed (and not being a spoilsport I kept my view to myself), I understood because there had been times -- always toward the end of the Dead's endlessly layered and jam-infused second sets -- when I had wept, too. Not many times, mind you, but enough to understand I wasn't losing my mind (okay, probably not) but was feeling a oneness and intimacy, as well as the sensation that everything in my life had been predestined to lead me up to this moment. It was very much a satori.
Among those moments was one late in a show (in 1977, natch) at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
The Dead took me to amazing places during this four-hour extravaganza in Barton Hall, Cornell's acoustically sublime Gothic Revival performance space, elevating me to great and then greater heights, and then bringing me down ever so gently at the end. Although it was May, snow was falling when my friends and I left the hall.
Thanks For The Memorex
The advent of recorded sound and quantum leaps in sound technology since then have left the notion that music could only be appreciated in the moment in the scrap heap along with the typewriter and buggy whip. I also believe this technology has compelled musicians to play better, sometimes much better.
The Dead were unusual in permitting taping of their performances; in fact, an area in the audience near the soundboard would be roped off just for tapers with their sophisticated portable decks and shotgun mikes on booms, so there were people already listening to a replay of the Cornell concert in the parking lot as we walked through the snow to my van. Today that show is available as an MP3 download, among other formats, and there is a DVD of the soundboard recording.
I'm glad you asked: Having a recording of that concert doesn't cheapen the experience. Neither do I get weepy while listening to the DVD toward the end of the second set, but the feeling I had that night is very much present. If there is a drawback, it is that the audience, which was such an integral part of the Grateful Dead experience, is a distant whisper on the soundboard DVD, which is why I prefer a recording by one of those tapers out amongst the writhing, tie-dyed masses. This is because it is so atmospheric, although technically inferior and in places downright murky.
Meanwhile, the only thing I like about MP3s is the convenience of being able to download a song or an entire album.
I'm with Byrne when he writes: "[MP3s] may be the most convenient medium so far, but I can't help thinking the psychoacoustic trickery used to develop them . . . is a continuation of this trend in which we are seduced by convenience. It's music in pill form, it delivers vitamins, it does the job, but something is missing."
A while back, I put together a baker's dozen list of my favorite musical compositions. I guess it was a slow day. I hadn't looked at the list since I assembled it, but was not surprised that of the 13 compositions, only three were arguably "happy," while the other 10 could be called either "sad" or "pensive."
No surprise because sad songs make me happy.
Why? Because sad music has a counterintuitive appeal for listeners, according to researchers. It allows us to experience indirectly -- I daresay to feel -- the emotions expressed in the lyrics. Not surprisingly, to me anyway, the melodies are usually in a minor key. And while the sadness may not mirror the listener's own experiences (although "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" is on my list and I did, in a sense, leave my heart there when I moved back East many years ago), it does trigger the release of that good-old dopamine.
Chicago Tribune music critic Greg writes:
"Consider that of the nine best-selling songs of all time, most brim with melancholy, if not sadness and despair. Bing Crosby’s 'White Christmas,' Elton John’s 'Candle in the Wind,' Whitney Houston’s 'I Will Always Love You,' Celine Dion’s 'My Heart Will Go On' -- to paraphrase Elton, sad songs not only say so much, they sell really, really well."
In A Jam
Let me wrap up my yammering by noting that if given a choice, I prefer an extended song over a short one. Take the blues classic "Who Do You Love?" I adore the original, Bo Diddley's hoodoo-rich 2 minute-17 second 1957 single, but Quicksilver Messenger Service's 25-minute extended jam on their 1969 Happy Trails album takes the cake.
Why? Because I prefer instrumental prowess over vocalizing, even as great as Bo Diddley's lyrics are:
Got a brand new house on the roadside, made from rattlesnake hide
I got a brand new chimney made on top, made from a human skull
Now come on baby let's take a little walk, and tell me "who do you love?"
Besides which, Quicksilver's performance, which was recorded live, preserves the lyrics and rhythm, although the band stretches both, creating an interactive and deeply psychic motif around guitarist John Cipollina's arpeggios.
It once frustrated me that groups like Steely Dan and The Band never jammed. (I got over it.) The closest The Band came was the coda on "It Makes No Difference" from The Last Waltz. Can you imagine what an extended version of that tearjerker would be like in the hands of these brilliant instrumentalists?
Cipollina, by the way, is one of those musicians whose style is so distinctive that you can ID him after only a note or two. Just like Charlie Parker.
Legendary jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke hated making records because he felt they were too limiting. "For a musician with a lot to say," he liked to say, "it was like telling Dostoevsky to do the Brothers Karamazov as a short story."