Music is, by its very nature, Creative. We could illustrate this truism with a thousand pieces. But–to keep your brain stimulated by taking you out of your comfort zone–we have made a pick that you might at first react to with a loud “Not!”
See if Josh can convince you to listen with different ears to our selection:
Thinking back to the decade of the 60’s and its many fierce struggles around such issues as civil rights, the Viet Nam War, and drugs, one piece of popular music is still a standout–serenely positive, clean, zestful, and thoroughly innovative: the Beach Boys “Good Vibrations.” With music by Brain Wilson and lyrics by Mike Love, this song from late 1966 reached Number One on the charts and has remained the iconic song of this California group.
You might not realize it at first, but nearly every aspect of “Good Vibrations” is unusual, from the vocal arrangement and the chords used to the overall form. Especially striking is the otherworldly sound in parts of the song, created by the use of the electro-theremin— an adaptation of a strange new instrument called the theremin, named after a Russian inventor of the 1920’s and 30’s. The original theremin was a space-controlled electronic instrument, with two metal antennas connected to oscillators. These antennas responded to the motion and position of the two hands, the right hand controlling pitch, the left, volume. Movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Spellbound famously include its eerie sounds in their soundtracks.
Now, the use of the electro-theremin in “Good Vibrations” is part of an inspiring back story that has prompted me to write about it in the first place–a story about resilience, creativity and inter-generational influence.
A little over a month ago, the last surviving member of the Glenn Miller Band, Paul Tanner, passed away at 95. After the break-up of the Miller band, Tanner did a lot of Hollywood studio work and then, in 1956 at 39, he enrolled at UCLA, earned a graduate degree there and joined the teaching faculty. Around that time, his interest in electronic music led to the invention of the electro-theremin, a more user-friendly version of the Russian original.
With its keyboard combined with a slide bar for pitch control, it soon caught on among movie composers—it is used in the 1964 film Strait-Jacket with Joan Crawford, for instance–and young rock musicians like Brain Wilson, 25 years Tanner’s junior, took to it as well.
As you listen to a YouTube performance of “Good Vibrations,” listen carefully for the electro-theremin. To help you discover the creativity to be found in this piece, I have provided a listening outline, adapted from a superb pop music survey text I cannot praise highly enough–Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman’s American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MP3. (Oxford University Press, 2010).
0:00 A Lyric: “I love colorful clothes..” Sung in a high solo voice, accompanied by organ, flutes, and eventually percussion. Minor key.
0:30 B …….: “I’m picking up good vibrations.” Bass voice enters, accompanied by cello, theremin, percussion, then rest of group. Major key.
0:55 A ……….”Close my eyes, she’s somehow closer now.” Like opening “A.”
1:20 B………. “I’m picking up good vibrations.” Like preceding “B.”
1:46 C…….soft humming, then “I don’t know where, but she sends me there…” Steady pulse as tensions builds; unstable
Instrumental interlude featuring organ and percussion, in new key. Sense of being in church.
2:19 D……”Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations happenin’ with her. ” Solo voice, then group, with organ accompaniment. Text repeats, then fades out as organ finishes section.
2:56 Transition……”Aah!”….. Sound gradually builds
3:30 Variation on B….”I’m picking up good vibrations…” Full group singing in major key; then voices drop out, leaving cello and theremin. They are joined by percussion before fading out.
Sometimes we dismiss popular music rightly as banal, repetitious, simplistic. Yet, developing our ability to discriminate the trivial from the good and great in any area of music–and life– is a key to keeping us open to new ideas, feelings, and sources of CREATIVITY in ourselves. That is one major way we can stay ageless.