Will Beatles songs eventually become as well known as nursery rhymes?

Scientist and musician Daniel Levitin wrote about the ubiquity of Beatles songs a while back:

One hundred years from now Beatles songs may be so well known that every child will learn them as nursery rhymes, and most people will have forgotten who wrote them. They will have become sufficiently entrenched in popular culture that it will seem as if they’ve always existed, like Oh Susannah, This Land Is Your Land, and Frère Jacques.

Why can we listen to certain songs across a lifetime and still find pleasure in them? Great songs activate deep-rooted neural networks in our brains that encode the rules and syntax of our culture’s music. Through a lifetime of listening, we have learned what is essentially a complex calculation of statistical probabilities of what chord is likely to follow what, and how melodies are formed. Skilful composers play with these expectations, meeting and violating them in interesting ways. In my laboratory we’ve found that listening to a familiar song that you like activates the same parts of the brain as sex or opiates do. But there is no one song that does this for everyone; musical taste is both variable and subjective…

On the bus to my office, the radio played And I Love Her and a Portuguese immigrant my grandmother’s age sang along. How many people can hum even two bars of Beethoven’s Fourth, or Mozart’s 30th? I recently played one minute of these to an audience of 700 people – professional musicians included – but not one recognised these pieces. Then I played a half-second of two Beatles songs – a fraction of the first “aah” of Eleanor Rigby and the guitar chord that opens A Hard Day’s Night – and virtually everyone shouted out the song names, more than could recognise the Mona Lisa.

To a neuroscientist, the Beatles’ longevity can be explained by the fact that their music creates subtle and rewarding schematic violations of popular musical forms, causing a symphony of neural firings from the cerebellum to the prefrontal cortex. To a musician, each listening showcases subtle nuances not heard before, details of arrangement and intricacy that slowly reveal themselves across hundreds or thousands of listenings. I have to admit, they’re getting better all the time.

While the neuroscience piece is interesting in its own right, a sociologist might be more interested in thinking about what songs make it to this level of common knowledge or become part of cultural narratives across societies. How many times does a song have to be played? Does it matter in what venues the song is performed? I could imagine a mega radio hit vs. a lesser known song that gets licensed dozens of times in the coming decades in commercials. Does the relative importance of the musical artist matter? Some of this has to do with diffusion and the various gatekeepers at play. The Beatles likely have all these factors (except the commercials) in their favor as they were a cultural phenomenon, produced numerous #1 singles around the world, changed the music industry (from recording to stopping touring), and were generally liked by critics.

Just thinking back, I feel like I only tend to hear this argument about what songs will last into the future when people are worried about their idea of bad music (maybe boy bands of the late 1990s, Brittany Spears, Lady Gaga, etc.) becoming the equivalent nursery rhymes.

Explaining phantom cellphone vibrations

Some recent studies suggest phantom cellphone vibrations are common and here are some possible explanations for why they happen:

A handful of studies in recent years have examined the prevalence of phantom cellphone vibrations, and they’ve come up with impressive numbers, from 68 percent of the medical staff at a Massachusetts hospital to 89 percent of undergraduates at a midwestern university, to more than 90 percent of Taiwanese doctors-in-training in the middle of their internships…

Hallucination may not be the most appropriate term, according to Laramie. “You’re misinterpreting something, but there is this external cue. You’re not totally making it up.” A compelling alternative, he suggests, is pareidolia. “That’s the phenomenon where you see a face in the clouds or hear ‘Paul is dead’ when you listen to the Beatles backwards.” (Or see the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich). Essentially, it’s your brain getting a little bit carried away with its normally very useful talent for finding patterns in the world around you…

In his thesis research, he found the two biggest predictors of phantom vibrations and ringing were age (young people experienced them more) and the extent to which people relied on their phone to regulate their emotional state—checking their phone when they wanted to calm down, for example, or get an emotional boost. “My hunch is at this point it’s a generational thing,” Laramie said. Twenty- and thirty-somethings who grew up with cellphones and have them ingrained in their daily lives probably experience the effect more than older people or technophobes, he says…

Like Laramie, Bensmaia thinks phantom vibrations are a result of the brain’s penchant for filling in the gaps to find patterns. A visual equivalent, he suggests, is seeing the outlines of furniture when you walk through your house in near-total darkness, or seeing the image of a Dalmatian in a field of black and white dots (it’s hard to see at first, but once you detect the pattern it’s almost impossible not to see it)…

“What happens, I think, is that because your clothes are rubbing against your skin, you cause activity in the same receptors, and that activity is just similar enough to the activity caused by a vibrating phone that it triggers the learned association and the perception of a vibrating phone,” he said. It’s not clear exactly where in the brain that occurs, Bensmaia says, but it probably involves the primary somatosensory cortex and other higher-level areas that process the sense of touch.

Is it then too far of a leap to suggest that phones are rewiring our brains in certain ways? Granted, lots of objects or behaviors might prompt rewiring but I suspect a good number of people would recoil at this idea as they normally don’t think the connections between objects and actions and the brain.

Comparing the brain to building around an ancient city

In describing the brain, neuroscientist Daniel Bor makes a comparison to building around an ancient city:

The human brain is in some ways an even more extreme example of a process that is far more creative than destructive. We effectively have three evolutionary versions of brains in our heads. Our brains are rather like a city that has existed since ancient times. In Cambridge, for instance, the historic center is squashed inside a fertile bend in the river Cam. This is the core of the city. Here there used to be a castle on a small hill, originally built by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. The oldest parts of the university, along with old churches and so on, are still there. Over the centuries, housing, university colleges, and research departments have sprung up around this central district. And now, around this second band of somewhat old structures, there are the outer suburbs, with modern housing along with large technology and business parks. Although an unromantic person might be tempted to replace the oldest buildings of the city and the narrow winding roads of the core area with efficient modern streets and buildings, all these ancient places still serve some purpose today. The expense of such renovations simply wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

An interesting comparison. However, even in revered ancient cities, changes have been made in the core, whether it is the rise of some modern buildings or the widening of streets to accommodate cars or the burrowing underground for subways or an updated infrastructure for features like sewers and fiber optic cables.

h/t Instapundit