The Sounds of Science

Schoolhouse Rock CD cover image“I got science for any occasion
postulating theorems formulating equations.”

That excellent rhyme is from the Beastie Boys’ song, “The Sounds of Science” off their classic album “Paul’s Boutique.” While not technically about science, the song does refer to Isaac Newton, Galileo, the theory of relativity and Ben Franklin’s famous kite experiment. The Beastie Boys are using science as a metaphor for their expansive skills and knowledge.

Science doesn’t just pop up in music for clever wordplay and braggadocio (although that is pretty awesome, right?). Many songs are inspired by science. In some that inspiration is implied, and in others it’s explicit. Scientists also have a fascination with music, on how and why it has an effect on us. Here are a few of the more interesting items in the library catalog where science and music intersect.

Schoolhouse Rock: Science Rock
This is a collection of science songs from the iconic TV show. It’s an ideal soundtrack for a certain generation longing nostalgically for the lost, lazy Saturdays of their youth. Or it could be the ideal soundtrack for that generation’s children to learn about electricity, gravity and the human body.

CD cover art for Here Comes Science by They Might Be GiantsHere Comes Science” by They Might be Giants
It’s probably no coincidence that Misters Flansburgh and Linell turned their talent for writing fact-based pop songs into educational children’s songs around the time they each became parents. They haven’t let that niche audience hamper their unique style in these songs. They are as enjoyable for the childless TMBG fans as for those cranking this CD in their minivan full of kids. And if you’ve been looking for inventor Nicolai Tesla’s impact on the world encapsulated in a pop song, then check out “Tesla” from their album “Nanobots.”

This is Your Brain on Music” by Daniel J. Levitin
Daniel J. Levitin is a former session musician, sound engineer and record producer. He is now a neuroscientist who runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University. When the book jacket says this is “the first book to arrive at a comprehensive scientific understanding of how humans experience music,” you at least know the author has the bona fides to tackle such an ambitious subject. I’m not qualified to say how comprehensive the book is, but it is a fascinating and wide-ranging look at one of our great obsessions. Levitin begins with the fundamentals of what music is. He then expands out to questions like the evolutionary origins of music and why we like the music we do.

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” by Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks is probably best known for the movie “Awakenings,” which is based on his book of the same name. He writes that it was seeing the effects music had on the patients in “Awakenings” that prompted him to think and write about music. In “Musicophilia” he writes about the effect of music on several different patients. There are stories of musical seizures, musical hallucinations, musical dreams and a man who became obsessed with Chopin after being hit by lightning.

The Marriage of True Minds” by Matmos
You might have to file this one under pseudoscience, but there’s no denying the band used the rigorous parameters of a science experiment in making these songs. Matmos re-enacted an experiment called the GANZFELD experiment, designed to create a scientifically verifiable way of investigating ESP. They isolated subjects in a room and used sensory deprivation techniques on the subjects. The subjects were instructed to clear their mind and try to receive any incoming psychic signals. Meanwhile, a band member sat in an adjacent room and tried to transmit “the concept of the new Matmos album” into the mind of the subject in the other room. They used the results of these experiments as source material, blueprints or restrictions in the creation of this new Matmos album.

Science is Fiction: 23 Films” by Jean Painlevé
Jean Painlevé was a biologist and filmmaker who started filming undersea documentaries in the late 1920s. In order to do this, he encased his camera in a custom made waterproof box. Although he did not consider himself a Surrealist, the influence of that movement can be seen in both the style and the subject matter of his films. The result is something like Jacques Cousteau meets the oil projections that used to play behind Grace Slick as she sang about Alice in Wonderland. Naturally, some of these films needed a live score. In 2001 the band Yo La Tengo wrote a score for 8 of Panlievé’s short films and performed them live at the San Francisco Film Festival. This collection of films includes a live performance of the score from 2005, as well as an interview with the band. Caution: the music for “The Love Life of the Octopus” might melt your brain.

About Eric

Eric has worked for DBRL a long time. His most defining trait is his inability to dunk a basketball. It haunts him.
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