Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Cutting rock down to size: Timbre!

In his fascinating book "This Is Your Brain On Music" author Daniel J. Levitin tells the story of a distinguished scientist and researcher who enjoyed a vast understanding of music and sound but never invested time learning about rock 'n' roll.

The scientist, John R. Pierce (who also wrote science fiction under the pseudonym J.J. Coupling), asked Levitin to play for him six songs "that captured all that was important to know" about rock 'n' roll.

What a deliciously daunting assignment. How in the world would you go about compiling that list? As Levitin admitted, he wasn't certain he could select six songs that would aptly sum up the Beatles. The task got only slightly easier when Pierce told Levitin it wouldn't be necessary to include Elvis Presley, whom the scientist had heard.

No doubt these men clicked on a cerebral level we won't attempt to match or even emulate in the Sanctuary, where rogue neurons travel through at their own risk. We can assume that Levitin at least understood the parameters, and thereby had a starting point from which to winnow the voluminous encylopedia of rock.

Here were the songs Levitin chose:

1. Long Tall Sally, Little Richard (pictured)
2. Roll Over Beethoven, Beatles
3. All Along the Watchtower, Jimi Hendrix
4. Wonderful Tonight, Eric Clapton
5. Little Red Corvette, Prince
6. Anarchy in the U.K., Sex Pistols

Those are six representative songs, but I'm sure each of us would select different ones based on our own musical sensibilities and listening experiences. There's probably no right or wrong to it. It is interesting that two of the songs are covers, albeit fabulous ones. And maybe Levitin is on to something here. If you select six kick-ass covers, you'd essentially have 12 artists or bands represented on your list.

What Pierce learned from the experiment is that rock music is defined by timbre, which the author describes as "tonal color" that "distinguishes one instrument from another when both are playing the same written note."

Or, in SSSspeak, find a drummer, bassist, lead guitarist and rhythm player and you have yourself a rock 'n' roll band.

Here are six songs we'd want to share with anyone who might have missed the rock 'n' roll revolution. We don't know what Pierce would make of them, but we're pretty sure tiny green space men would be dancing around and playing air guitar:

1. Johnny B. Goode, Chuck Berry
2. Summertime Blues, Eddie Cochran
3. Sympathy for the Devil, Rolling Stones
4. Layla, Derek & the Dominoes
5. Revolution, Beatles
6. Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

The thing to remember is a list like this would have to change every day because rock 'n' roll doesn't stand still for anyone or anything. I already wish I had a good southern rocker on there. Quick, somebody request "Free Bird"...


  1. His list - no Chuck Berry = automatic fail.

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  3. It would take me a long time to come up with my list. I agree with blogger "charles" who equates Chuck Berry with automatic fail.

  4. Allman Brothers for your southern rock .... sweet melissa, perhaps

  5. Louie, Louie (we gotta go now.

  6. I equated NO Chuck Berry with total instant and eternal fail.

    How can you talk about the essence of rock 'n' roll and leave out Chuck Berry?

  7. The second list is far superior to the first. Chuck Berry was the first inductee into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame for good reason.

  8. If no Dylan cover, Dylan's a necessity.
    Also, I'd switch out BTR for She's the One,
    because it's everything Bruce but with a critical addition - the Bo Diddly beat.