WUMB June Program Guide

The Science of Music (A Mystery to Me…)

Have you ever seen the cartoon “Dexter’s Laboratory?” Dexter is a 5-year-old science wunderkind. He’s got a big lab in the basement of his family’s house. The bane of his existence is keeping his mischievous older sister Dee Dee out of there so she won’t hit a wrong button, etc. Each show starts with Dexter waking up and saying, “Today is a great day for Science!

It’s a funny cartoon show. And Dexter is clearly one of a kind…but clearly not a socially magnetic kid.

Riding the subway the other day, I noticed a posting for the Cambridge Science Festival later this month. This in turn reminded me of National Astronomy Day, held for years on the second Saturday in May at the Clay Center Observatory in Brookline. Like with the Museum of Science in Boston, these are programs to make Science look wicked cool for kids. I’ve often thought that in order to get the USA back on top in science and innovation, you’ve got to get the next generation interested in Science – and to do that, you’ve got make Science rock!

This is an easier segue/way to Music than I would normally think.

Somewhere in the gray matter of my mind is a bit about the science of music chords and modalities. Specifically I am thinking of how certain chords create certain moods or responses in the listener. I have no idea how that works. But sometimes I can hear it in action. You know what I mean – when a certain sound or combination of sounds makes you feel a certain way. Sort of like what Leonard Cohen wrote in Hallelujah: “I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord.” Some chords or modalities just do something indescribable to you. Besides creativity, I understand there is a science to it.

No doubt you music school Theory majors can explain it. But for now, here are two examples of this phenomenon in my humble opinion: “Palm Lines” by Lowland Hum, and most of the album Strange Country by Kacy & Clayton.

Both are duos. Both include fingerpicking guitar work that makes me go gaga (how’s that for a scientific evaluation). And in addition to the guitar picking and arrangement of chords, both share effective vocal blending. It’s not just good harmonies – for which I am an unabashed sucker. There is something about the sound of their voices, and the shape of their phrasing at certain points where they connect, that just creates the equivalent of a chemical reaction in my ears.

Lowland Hum (album Thin) and Kacy & Clayton (album Strange Country). Put them in a mix tape for a friend, surrounded by Fairport Convention, early Bob Dylan, the Cowboy Junkies, and some baroque music from Mannheim Steamroller.

Happy Spring at last (did I say that last year at this time?),
— Perry


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