This Is Your Brain On Music

Available in Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook
Page # Song / Author / Description
All Along the Watchtower - Hendrix, Jimi

"This is the third song on the list. Here, we hear Jimi soloing using his wah-wah pedal. Psychedelia and the 60s had to be represented. I wanted to play something by Led Zeppelin because they begat all of heavy metal. I wanted to play something by Hendrix because he was arguably the greatest electric guitar icon. I wanted to play another Beatles song to show off their versatility. For several days, it was a toss-up between The Beatles trying to imitate Hendrix ('Helter Skelter') and Hendrix covering a Beatles tune (a rare live recording of 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.') Although I love both those songs, in the end I felt hard pressed to justify that either one was one of the six greatest (or six most representative) songs in all of rock; I had arrived at them through a purely intellectual process and, as is often the case, had lost sight of the real purpose of the exercise. I also wanted to play 'Stairway to Heaven' just because it showed the two sides of heavy metal – the pastoral, acoustic ballad side in its intro – and the shredding vocals and blistering electric guitar solo of its outro. I also felt that I needed something that showed off electric guitars and distortion. In the end, I opted for 'All Along the Watchtower' by Hendrix because it is an iconic rock tune, and it allowed me to sneak in Dylan (who wrote the song). I don't think that any Led Zeppelin or Beatles fan would begrudge the choice and it gave John Pierce a chance to hear Hendrix. It was exciting for me to watch his reactions to hearing Hendrix for the first time. I only wish that I could take some drug or treatment that would temporarily render my mind and ears with a sort of musical amnesia, so that I could once again experience one of the most profoundly exciting events of my life: hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time."
Superstition - Wonder, Stevie

"'I'm On Fire' by Bruce Springsteen, 'Superstition' by Stevie Wonder, and 'Ohio' by The Pretenders all have great grooves, and are very different from one another. But there is no formula for how to create a great one [...]. One element that gives 'Superstition' its great groove is Stevie Wonder's drumming. In the opening few seconds of 'Superstition,' when Stevie's high-hat cymbal is playing alone, you can hear part of the secret to the song’s groove. Drummers consider the high-hat to be their time-keeper. Even if listeners can't hear it in a loud passage, the drummer uses it as a point of reference for himself. The beat Stevie plays on the high-hat is never exactly the same way twice; he throws in little extra taps, hits, and rests. Moreover, every note that he plays on the cymbal has a slightly different volume – nuances in his performance that add to the sense of tension. The snare drum starts with bum-(rest)-bum-bum-pa and we're into the hi-hat pattern:
DOOT-doot-doot-dootah DOOtah-doot-doot-dootah
DOOT-daat-doot-dootah DOOT-dootah-dootah-doot
The genius of his playing is that he keeps us on our mental toes by changing aspects of the pattern every time he plays it, holding just enough of it the same to keep us grounded and oriented. Here, he plays the same rhythm at the beginning of each line, but changes the rhythm in the second part of the line, in a 'call-and-response' pattern. He also uses his skill as a drummer to alter the timbre of his high hat in one key place: for the second note of the second line, in which he has kept the rhythm the same, he hits the cymbal differently to make it 'speak' in a separate voice; if his cymbal was a voice, it’s like he changed the vowel sound that it’s saying.'
Urge for Going - Mitchell, Joni

"Many of the greatest musicians of our era lacked formal training, including [...] Joni Mitchell. [...] Joni Mitchell had sung in choirs in public school, but had never taken guitar lessons or any other kind of music lessons. Her music has a unique quality that has been variously described as avant garde, ethereal, and as bridging classical, folk, jazz, and rock. Joni uses a lot of alternate tunings; that is, instead of tuning the guitar in the customary way, she tunes the strings to pitches of her own choosing. This doesn't mean that she plays notes that other people don't – there are still only 12 notes in a chromatic scale – but it does mean that she can easily reach with her fingers combinations of notes that other guitarists can't reach (regardless of the size of their hands). [...] A string that is pressed on ('fretted') has a different sound than one that isn't due to a slight deadening of the string caused by the finger; the unfretted or 'open' strings have a clearer, more ringing quality, and they will keep on sounding for a longer time than the ones that are fretted.
When two or more of these open strings are allowed to ring together,
a unique timbre emerges. By retuning, Joni changed the configuration of which notes are played when a string is open, so that we hear
notes ringing that don't usually ring on the guitar, and in
combinations we don't usually hear. You can hear it on her
songs 'Urge for Going' and 'Refuge of the Roads' for example.'"