The Avid Listener: Music and Media

31 posts categorized "Music and Media"

February 27, 2017

Blurring Categories: Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize

Sally K Sommers Smith Wells (Division of Natural Science and Mathematics, Boston University)


Patti Smith performs Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” at the 2016 Nobel Prize ceremony. Smith accepted Bob Dylan’s award on his behalf.


The Swedish Academy’s decision to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan was one of the biggest news stories of 2016. Major news sources including the New York Times and The Guardian reacted to the announcement, and Dylan’s initial refusal to acknowledge the award brought another wave of comment and criticism. Some critics focused on the meaning of literature in the wake of this award. Others were far more concerned about whether one could separate an artist’s lyrics from the music that presents them. The award—and the debate over whether Dylan’s lyrics could be considered poetry—prompted heated discussions about the nature of art and celebrity and served as the centerpiece for an amusing short story in The New Yorker.  Although Dylan did not attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm in early December, he ultimately acknowledged the award with a “warm, humble” acceptance statement that alluded to the ongoing philosophical conversation that the Swedish Academy’s decision had inspired, without providing any answers on the subject.

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January 31, 2017

Beethoven’s Deafness and the Myth of the Isolated Artist

Linda Shaver-Gleason (Lompoc, CA)


In a scene from the 1995 movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, music teacher Glenn Holland tells his high school students about Beethoven’s deafness while playing the second movement of the composer’s seventh symphony (the same movement used fifteen years later during the climax of The King’s Speech). Holland has just learned that his toddler son is deaf. While Holland describes the irony of Beethoven’s situation—one of the greatest composers not being able to hear—it’s clear to the viewer that he’s connecting it to his personal irony, as his son will never be able to hear the music that has been his life’s purpose.


A scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus, in which Mr. Holland discusses Beethoven’s deafness with his students. 

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May 16, 2016

Hearing with Your Eyes: Science Fiction Television and Hearing the Unseen

Reba A. Wissner (Montclair State University)

Hearing the unseen through non-diegetic music is nothing new to film. Although John Williams made the technique famous in his scores for Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), it dates back to horror films of the 1930s and radio dramas of the 1940s. Early radio plays were dubbed “The Theater of the Mind” because listeners had to visualize what was happening. In a radio horror series such as Suspense, it was conventional for the scary thing to be heard through music before it was heard through words. But the evocation of terror and dread through music didn’t start with radio, film, or television. Known as ombra, this type of music came from opera of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, usually in scenes where supernatural or mythical beings appear and are musically dramatized.


The beginning of the “Wolf’s Glen Scene” from Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (1821). Samiel, the huntsman who casts magic bullets, speaks rather than sings in this scene. His music is first introduced in the overture.


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April 18, 2016

Celebrating the Nuclear Apocalypse with Tom Lehrer

Tim Smolko (Athens, Georgia)

Like Pez, Peeps, and Pop Rocks, a novelty song is a sugar rush for the ear. The great number of novelty songs about the Cold War attests to the fact that people needed to diffuse their fear of the Soviet Union, and the possibility of nuclear war, with humor and satire. But can anything substantial be expressed about an immense subject like the Cold War through comedy? Perhaps Tom Lehrer’s songs can. They are a sugar rush, but they contain erudite social commentary.

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April 11, 2016

“You’ll Tic Tic All Day Long”: The Cold War, Geiger Counters, and Doris Day

Tim Smolko (Athens, Georgia)

Some wars are good. Most are bad. Some are just plain weird. The Cold War was definitely weird, and one of the best ways to grasp its weirdness is to listen to Cold War novelty songs from the 1940s to the 1960s. The oddest of them all may be “Tic Tic Tic” by Doris Day, from 1949. Though Day’s 1956 hit “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” is a bit maudlin, it continues to pull on the heartstrings. Unfortunately “Tic, Tic, Tic,” about a Geiger counter, has not aged well at all. It may just get on your last nerve. Yet this song is interesting and valuable in that it captures the naiveté of Americans in the late 1940s and 1950s regarding the dangers of radioactivity.


“Tic Tic Tic” by Doris Day

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Norton Music

A History of Western Music

J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca

The Enjoyment of Music

Kristine Forney, Andrew Dell’Antonio, and Joseph Machlis