Radiolab on music

Over the course of the last few years, I have become a pretty obsessive NPR listener, and one of the first shows to really hook me was Radiolab. This program, hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, explores scientific ideas through compelling storytelling. Think of it as This American Life for science geeks. Over the years, they have done a number of specials either focused on or featuring stories about music. Below, I have collected a few of my favorites.

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Please feel free to share other programs that may be interesting! Enjoy!

The Ring and I. This is probably my favorite hour of radio — period. The Radiolab cast presents the history and plot of Wagner’s Ring Cycle from a number of different perspectives. This production makes one of the most heavy works of music in the Western cannon both approachable and compelling to anyone no matter their background. If you only listen to one show from this list, this is it!

Musical Language. This episode examines the links between music and language: “We re-imagine the disastrous debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913 through the lens of modern neurology, and we meet a composer who uses computers to capture the musical DNA of dead composers in order to create new work.”

Unraveling Bolero. Both Maurice Ravel, one of the first Impressionist composers, and Anne Adams, a visual artist, are believed to have the same disease, and the symptoms of this condition are evinced by Ravel’s piece Bolero as well as Adams’ visual representation of the same piece.

A 4-Track Mind. This is one of the coolest stories I have ever heard. Bob Milne is a ragtime piano players that is able to audiate four distinct pieces of music in his mind at the same time with near perfect accuracy. Well worth a listen!

The Loudest Miniature Fuzz. This was the story that introduced me to the band Buke and Gass. Homemade instruments and fantastic melodies make them one of the most interesting and one of my favorite bands. Check them out!

Radiolab Remixed. The podcast recently released several stories with separate tracks and encouraged listeners to remix these stories in whatever way that they saw fit. Here are some of the highlights. There is some really cool stuff here!

Earworms. An exploration of the dreaded “earworm”: that song that pops into your head and just won’t leave you alone…

Pop Music. More earworms, plus, how do musicians write pop hits? How does a deaf man hear music?

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Does the increased focus on standardized testing lead to standardized, factory experiences for students? The arts may provide opportunities for these students to better understand themselves and their learning as individuals.

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Small. Music, Society, Education


Small succinctly summarizes the place of music (and art in all forms) in Western society with the following statement: “We know more about the world, and experience it less, than perhaps any previous generation in history” (p. 5).

As a culture, we have removed art from its societal function and put it on a pedestal as an aesthetic object to be admired from afar. In the west, art is the territory of professionals, while in other cultures music is a community activity. In many of these cultures, music as a constantly evolving practice executed by “laymen” of all ages. Often, they do not value the masterworks of the past in the way that we do in the west. In these cultures, art thrives, while in ours, artistic organizations fight to scrape by.
Small examines the scientific worldview has influences western cultural views art. This was a very interesting comparison, which at first may seemed like a stretch, but once Small worked out these ideas, it seemed to make sense.

For me, as a music educator, the most engrossing part of this book was Small’s focus on music education. Basically, we need to look at the role of music in our culture and evaluate how this relates to our need to create and experience art. Afterward, look back at the education system. Often times we take music out of its context and strip it of any cultural meaning making it completely irrelevant for students (and even teachers). Rather than treating music education as we have for the past hundred years, we need to reexamine the way that we present music to our students.

While one can argue about whether technology is affecting our relationship with music for better or for worse, one must accept the fact that this relationship is changing. Our artistic institutions seem reluctant to admit this, often to their detriment. What will the artistic landscape in the west look like 50 years in the future? Will the rift that we have created between the artist and the audience remain intact or break down? After reading Small’s account of music’s place in society, I cannot help but seriously consider these questions.

These ideas have weighed heavily on my mind for quite a while, and Small’s book is a cogent call to reassess our relationship with art. I would recommend it for all who are steeped in the creation, performance, and institutionalization of art. Thoughts like this may help us better ourselves by regaining our humanistic connection to music and art.

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John Covach’s What’s That Sound?

I began this book hoping to find a source that I could potentially use to teach about popular music. This is the source. As a musicologist, Covach has noted that musicology often finds it difficult to reconcile the social and musical aspects of popular music. This book does its best to addresses these issues as well as considering the influence of the music industry — the commodification of music. In addition, Covach makes connections between disparate artists, musical styles, and even distant historical periods — providing ways to relate popular music to other styles of music throughout Western history. This survey also deals explicitly with the sexuality that underlies the history of rock and popular music (if one is planning on teaching from this book, be aware).

Overall, Covach has put together a tremendous and comprehensive retrospective of rock music combining the commercial, social, and musical qualities that make rock music a power force in the US and UK. It is highly recommended toall who are interested in this style of music and its place in Western culture.

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Colorado Symphony Orchestra rethinks programming, funding, everything

Thanks to my friend Michelle for this article: a great account of how one symphony orchestra lifted itself up out of a financial abyss.

Might this have implications for the field of music outside the concert hall as well?

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Estelle Jorgensen’s The Art of Teaching Music


While this book may seem derivative at times, The Art of Teaching Music (TAOTM) asks music educators to take a step back and consider the big picture. Why do we do this, and what does music education really mean? What should we be teaching our students? She encourages music educators to reflect on their practice and through this reflection take steps toward self-improvement. TAOTM is both appropriate for active professionals looking to refresh their perspectives on music education as well as preservice teachers who are preparing to enter the field. Especially appreciated is the last chapter, “Reality” where Jorgensen presents an accurate picture of what it is like to to be a teacher without parsing words — an honest look at the profession.

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Learning to perform music…

Learning to perform music is like learning magic. When you first see it being done, you attempt to do it, but clumsily. Through practice, you gradually begin to understand what you are doing and how to do this magic smoothly and with finesse. At first it seems that you stumble about not knowing exactly what you are trying to do. Then, over time, as you trust your teacher, you come to be able to do what your teacher does and even to do it differently or better than he or she does.

Estelle R. Jorgensen. The Art of Teaching Music (p. 226). Kindle Edition.

The challenges and joys of music learning music eloquently distilled into a few sentences; sentences also encourage our senses of wonder and excitement.

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