CLPS 0500 Perception and Mind, John Marks Guest Lecture on “Music”

Courtesy Stereophile magazine.

Preparation for Participation, Part One

A recent article (Mehr, et al., 2019) posits that across all cultures, song (meaning music with words) is a “cultural constant.”

To put it as simply as possible, “Everybody sings.” (Or, at least: Most people, in all cultures, sing.)

This, in and of itself, should not be surprising. People in most (if not all) cultures have since earliest times always heard birds singing (although admittedly, on a spectrum from the most simple to the most complex bird songs). If you do a web search with the query: “relationship between birdsong and human song” you will be presented with an engrossing salmagundi of results, with this one at the top (“Birdsong and Human Language”).

(Note, read that article in full only if it interests you; I just wanted you to be aware of the concept of a relationship between birdsong, and human song and language.)

What I found remarkable in the Mehr 2019 study is that study’s mention of a previous paper by the same team, reporting the experimental finding that:

[U]ntrained listeners in 60 countries could on average discern the human behavior associated with culturally unfamiliar musical forms. These behaviors included dancing, soothing a baby, seeking to heal illness, or expressing love to another person.

In other words, ordinary listeners could tell what kinds of songs they were listening to, even when those songs came from far-away places and radically different cultures.

So, in order to prepare yourself to participate in the discussions I hope my guest lectures will prompt, here are some resources, a “thought experiment,” and a word-association question.

Note, I have tried to limit the “required” items to the bare minimum (this document entails circa 1 hour, more or less total reading and listening time), keeping in mind that one or more additional, similar documents will follow this one. That said, if you plan to make the content of this course your main field of endeavor, doing a deeper dive into background reading never hurts; so I have listed optional reading.

[SIDEBAR, on the subject of working hard: Lounge pianist Bobby Short, who was recognized by the Library of Congress in 2001 as a “Living Legend,” reportedly knew 1,200 “Great American Songbook” songs from memory. Equally impressive is that when one of my sisters studied at Brown, her faculty adviser was Rabbi Jacob Neusner, who authored in total more than 900 books. Seriously.]

Required Items:

1) Please carefully read this news/blog article about the Mehr, et al. 2019 paper:

(Estimated time: 7 minutes.)

Below, I link to the study itself; but I think that reading the complete study should be optional.

2) In the paper described in the above news item, Mehr and his colleagues claim that what is common to all societies is the use of song in the contexts of: Dancing; “love” (in the sense of what I call “dating, mating, and family formation”); infant care; and healing.

Those four items hardly exhaust the possibilities for the uses of and contexts for music. Please spend some time thinking about the uses to which music is put, or what music is useful for, or what the creators of music intend it to be used for. Think broadly about how people encounter music in their daily lives, and also about how people encounter music in the context of major life events and transitions.

I ask you to list at least six uses of or contexts for music (of any kind) that are not on the above list.

Here are two examples of the kind of “outside the box” thinking I am looking for:

  • a) Group work songs (or chants) can be used to coordinate-in-time group tasks that require specific workers to perform their particular activities in a fixed sequence, e.g., coordinating the operation of an ancient boom-and-bucket (shadoof, or counterpoise lift) irrigation system. In such a system, the bucket has to be pulled down into the water supply against the weight of the counterweight and then raised (and oftentimes also swiveled) over a barrier, to the high end of the irrigation ditch. The water is then dumped and the bucket is swiveled back to a position over the water supply, to be pulled down again. The work song provides the “clock” for the events that make up the task.
  • b) Songs can assist in memorization. The “A-B-C-D-E-F-G” song, for example.

(Please don’t use those two freebies; please come up with others.)

I don’t mind at all if your responses are evocatively poetic.

If someone were to list “Providing the soundtrack for marital infidelity” as a use for music, I would be tickled. That’s because years ago, Sony Pictures/Columbia TriStar Television paid me a nice packet of cash to use some music I had produced as the environmental music in a few episodes of the daytime television drama The Young and the Restless.

That is, the music would be understood as being heard as part of the environment of the set itself, rather than being an artificial add-on. (When the idea first was raised of overlaying music onto scenes in movies, the question was raised, would not the audiences wonder where the music was coming from? Obviously, they didn’t, and still don’t.)

Back to The Young and the Restless. When the adulterous couple would meet in the proverbial “small café” to plan their escape, the music coming out of the ceiling loudspeakers was string-quartet music from my record label.

(Estimated time: 10 minutes or less.)

3) Please read this blog entry and listen to the sound samples (“The Saddest Song”). Note, you may wish to take some notes about your impressions, reactions, or any questions you might have.

In that blog entry I criticize the methodology of an effort to use “big data” to determine what is the “saddest song.”

(Estimated time: 28 minutes.)

4) Please watch this music video (“Canned Heat,” Jamiroquai 1999):

Again, you may wish to take some notes about your impressions, reactions, or any questions you might have. Such as, “Why on earth is he asking us to listen to this???”

(Estimated time: 4 minutes.)

5) Please free-associate on the word “Opera,” by which I mean the “theatrical art form with music” developed in the late Renaissance (ca. 1597) under the influence of the Florentine Camerata. The foremost exponent of opera in the United States today is New York City’s Metropolitan Opera company.

In the event that you never have had exposure to opera (even second-hand or third-hand), let me try to explain it like this: Before the Scientific Revolutions of the 20th century, opera was what people went to see; that was because movies and television did not yet exist.

Opera started out as part of the Renaissance’s attempt to recover and recreate the culture of Classical Antiquity. (But then, they had to figure out a way to pay the bills.) I once was a consultant to a struggling opera company, and I advised them to adopt the marketing tagline “Drama, drama, and more drama.”

The difference between “opera” and “a musical” is that operas are 100% singing (albeit, divided between low-intensity and high-intensity singing); while musicals use spoken dialog to fill you in on the backstory and to keep the action moving.

My mentor Boris Goldovsky used to say,

When confronted with adultery, betrayal, kidnapping, rape, or murder, the natural human response is to sing about it.

To give you an example (and a pop quiz), please listen to this excerpt from von Flotow’s 1847 opera Martha, oder Der Markt zu Richmond (Martha, or The Market at Richmond).

The backstory there is that (hey! please remember, this is opera!), two upper-class British girls, bored with life (umm… First-World Problems) decide that for fun they will sell themselves off as servants, to see how the other half lives. Right.

OF COURSE, one high-born young man finds himself falling in love with his family’s NEW SERVING GIRL!!

So, here is his cri de coeur. There are 90 seconds of intro before the famous aria (song) “Ach, so fromm” (“Ah! So pious”) begins.

The words:

Ach, so fromm, ach, so traut                        Oh, so meek, oh, so comforting
Hat mein Auge sie erschaut;                        she appeared to my eyes;
Ach so mild und so rein                                    oh, so gentle and so pure
Drang ihr Bild in’s Herz mir ein.                        her image pressed into my heart.
Banger Gram, eh’ sie kam,                                    Anxious grief, before she came,
Hat die Zukunft mir umhüllt,                        enveloped my future,
Doch mit ihr blühte mir                                    but with her bloomed for me
Neues Dasein lusterfüllt.                                    a new existence filled with joy.
Weh, es schwand, was ich fand,                         Woe, what I found disappeared,
Ach, mein Glück erschauf ich kaum.            alas, I barely created my happiness.
Bin erwacht, und die Nacht                         I was awakened, and the night
Raubte mir den süssen traum.                        robbed me of the sweet dream.
Martha! Martha! Du entschwandest,             Martha! Martha! You vanished,
Und mein Glück nahmst du mit dir;                        and you took my happiness with you;
Gib mir wieder, was du fandest,                        give me back what you found,
Oder theile es mit mir.                                    or share it with me.

Pop Quiz:

The above aria (or song) was the favorite opera aria of which famous person:

(a) Alexander Hamilton
(b) Donald Trump
(c) LeBron James
(d) Paul McCartney
(e) Madonna
(f) None of the Above

HINT: The correct answer is “(f) None of the Above.”

To get the name of the famous person whose favorite opera aria “Ach, so fromm” was, please send in your homework.

Please provide five or more words or phrases that come to you when you think of the word “Opera.”

Do not be afraid to be forthright; I doubt I will be offended if some examples are something like:


“For rich people”

“People yelling at each other in a foreign language.”

NB, this is not an effort to validate, valorize, or privilege one art form over all others. In my lectures, I will make the argument that opera composers create a sense of drama by tapping into (or hijacking) hard-wired neural pathways, the original purposes of which were to act as survival mechanisms.

(Estimated time: 10 minutes or less.)

Total estimated time for Required Items: ±1 hour or less.

Optional Items:

1) The entire Mehr, et al. 2019 article, “Universality and Diversity in Human Song” can be found here.

(Estimated time: 1 hour+.)

2) The Mehr, et al. 2018 article, “Form and Function in Human Song” can be found here:

(Estimated time: 1 hour+)

Please email your lists for the uses of music and your free-associations on the word “Opera” to John Marks at johnnywehardly (at) by April 7, 2020.

 I invite questions, comments, or discussion.

 # # #

7 Replies to “CLPS 0500 Perception and Mind, John Marks Guest Lecture on “Music””

  1. Michael Zisserson

    My Dearest John,
    I think these exercises are brilliant and I have begun to peck away at them. I am not going to rush, however, simply because anything worth doing is worth doing well. I implore any “n00b”, friend, college, and long-time music/audio industry pro to sink their teeth into the challenge you have laid out here. There is no level high enough that one could not benefit from any, to all of these exercises in the continuing journey music appreciation. My answers and thoughts to come.


    • Michael Zisserson

      My 6 Contexts
      Emotional Education – There are a great deal of lessons music teaches, and therefore attaches to, those who may not have learned to be emotionally intelligent. These are deeply thought out subjects like ego (Might Sam McClain’s “Too Proud”), Grief (Peter Gabriel’s “I Grieve”), Desperation (Nike Drake’s “Riverman”), Existentialism (John Mayer’s “Stop This Train”), Words are not always required as heard in Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which represents a generous helping of humility.

      Be a guiding force for actionable life events that are not culturally harmonious – I think of songs like “Home” by Three Days Grace, and “Rearranged” by Limp Bizkit. They are heavy, yes, but also much more than a break-up song. They discuss a range of emotion and showcase the difficult battle within when deciding to do something like end a marriage with someone you love, but do not like.

      Inspire movement – Less in the form of dance, but more in the form of exercise. Musical genres such as dubstep and techno are widely used in “gym life” cultures where a long term, high-tempo beat is combined with dissonant sounds that ultimately resolve to a chorus that is structured around major chords. A constant of dissonant grinding with a fanfare-like resolve which all rides on a racing heartbeat helps keep energy levels up while spinning, weightlifting, or loudly discussing gains at the smoothie bar.

      Group Emotional Evocation – When visiting Frosty Drew Observatory in Charlestown RI, they softly play ambient new-age instrumental music that provides a calming atmosphere to the soft, crimson-lit darkness while you are made infinitely insignificant by the universe. Everyone in attendance is captivated. With everyone’s vision being less of a factor, the music engulfs all like a wave calming the spirit and allowing one’s mind to enjoy the experience. Of course, too, this can apply to wartime marching songs.

      Product Branding – This is my low-effort one. Typically, in the service industry. “Nationwide is on Your Side.” Nuff’ said.

      Peacocking – I think some of this is culture based such as the deep beats blaring from the cars of angsty drivers in urban areas. However, it does not end there. We have all seen the balding middle-aged man in a shiny sports car with their generational “fun” music playing to overwhelm the senses of young and fertile mates. Women do this too. Typically, young women in small groups. Walk through a mall and their may be a group of three to five girls playing music through a smart phone, while singing brief parts of a song, giggling loudly to attract attention. Perhaps they are trying to get the attention of the aloof young man walking along blaring his smart phone all the same? Regardless; In this manner music is less about romancing a mate or love, but showing off what the attractor personally believes are good traits in a loud enough manner to get attention. Note: I have never seen this form of human peacocking work.

      Note on “The Saddest Song”
      I like how you frame sad music as a “Paradoxical Pleasure.” It is nearly universal that when people are sad, they turn to music for comfort. Not joyful or happy music, rather contextually or relationally sad music. In fact, finding comfort in sad music was the whole premise of the “O Brother HERE Art Thou” article I wrote for Positive Feedback Online. Aria is defiantly a sad song, and your musical argument as to why is strong. I wish I knew the name of my saddest song. It is an orchestral piece that I heard yeas ago and while I can still hear it in my mind’s ear perfectly, the name has been lost with time. Someday I will find it again.

      In my utmost humble opinion, there is never a reason, ever, to listen to “Canned Heat.”


      Opera is entertaining! It takes far more vocal talent than any other music genre since the entire emotional range of the plot has to be portrayed through voice. Like a good deal of classical, a lot of the themes are slow to develop, or are built upon in a repetitive nature (musicals borrow this too as the musical skeleton for most of the songs in any good musical is constructed in the overture). This does not play well today. We are nearing two generations into the technological boom and with so much available at everyone’s fingertips, attention spans are short. However, if patience prevails opera can provide a very deep emotional journey with surprisingly dark and/or juicy plots. I also believe music such as opera calls on system II brain activity which can be exhausting to most if they do not exercise their mind much. This is a hunch though, and not fully developed.

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  3. Terren

    Hello! Thank you for such an informative post! I look forward to the future lectures. Here are my responses to the questions below:

    Music can be used to improve mood, to connect with one’s emotions, to communicate feelings that aren’t totally accurately shared through words, to evoke emotions along with visual scenes (such as in movies), to create soundscapes to enhance other creative performances like dances, and to cover up awkward silences.

    5 words that I associate with opera are: classic, talent, skill, emotion, and rawness.

  4. Thomas Brown

    Thank you for this post and thank you for coming to guest lecture in our class!

    Uses of music: elicit specific emotions in movie scenes, sooth children to sleep, set the mood during dinner time, show off your instrumental abilities to impress your friends at parties, using nostalgic music can bring you back to your childhood or a certain time period, and music can be used to overcome the language barriers of differing cultures.

    Words associated with opera: theater, bellowing, historic, entertainment, and yodeling. (For some reason, I associate opera with yodeling, yet I know that they’re different.)

  5. Nkemdilim Ugwu

    Thank you very much for this post! I found it incredibly engaging

    Six Uses/ Contexts of Music
    1. To entertain crowds of people
    2. To find escape from reality. I have seen first hand how music has the power to transform a long, hot subway ride into a completely different type of adventure.
    3. To teach. Many songs have life lessons, and offer people insight on how to deal with various emotions and life stages.
    4. To honor various types of ceremonies. Different holidays and occasions call for a variety of different types of music. “The Happy Birthday Song” on birthdays, “Here Comes the Bride” on weddings, “Jingle Bells” on Christmas.
    5. To remember moods and feelings of the past. Music has the power to trigger hidden memories that one may have associated with a particular song
    6. As a form of meditation or relaxation.

    5 words that I connect with opera
    1. Powerful
    2. Air
    3. Lungs
    4. Wigs
    5. Classical

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