Several years ago, I witnessed an event that I will never forget. It was at a Los Angeles Unified School District luncheon for board members and their families.
A girl group that I was managing at the time, called U4Ea!, performed a medley of girl group songs of the ‘60s, including such timeless classics as: “Gee-Whiz” by Carla Thomas, “Walkin’ in the Rain,” “Be My Baby,” by The Ronettes and “He’s A Rebel” by The Chiffons, etc.
As the girls worked their way through the 15 minutes of 21 hit songs, the adult audience of 40 to 60-something’s were not only clapping their hands, swaying and singing along but as they sang, I could see many of them wiping tears from their eyes. At the end of the medley, the audience collectively jumped up from their seats like they had just been hit by a jolt of electricity, applauding wildly. LAUSD board member Barbara Boudreau advanced slowly down the aisle toward the stage with a big, broad grin on her face, tears streaming from her eyes and arms outstretched, ready to hug each girl. To me, that moment was living proof of what Motown founder Berry Gordy always used to say to us songwriters at Motown, that: “It’s the song that makes the artist, not the other way around.” Here, I was personally observing three girls that no one in that audience had heard of prior to the afternoon’s performance, being treated like rock stars. But it wasn’t for them that all the tears and applause were for. It was those classic songs they sang written by someone else 35 years ago, when most of the audience was still in high school or college. What the songs did was trigger intense emotional feelings from that specific period in their life. Or as Barbara Boudreau said as she wrapped her arms around each girl, “You girls took me back to high school when I was 18 and in my senior year.” That is the power of a song that can reach out and touch so many people. And a hit song can do it all around the world, regardless of the language.
Neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitan, author of “This is Your Brain on Music” and “The World in Six Songs” and who also runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, said that it’s the “melody that humans recognize first.” (Ever ask someone if they can identify a song by only citing the words, rather than humming the melody?)
To me, a song is a left and right brain thing, and the right brain is the side associated with the realm of music, creativity, aesthetics and feeling while the left is associated with language, logical thinking, analysis and accuracy. That explains another thing that Berry Gordy used to say: “If you can’t hum back a melody by the time it gets to the last ‘sing along’ (chorus), it’s probably not going to be a hit.” Similarly, in film music, the great Elmer Bernstein (“The Magnificent 7,” “The Great Escape” and “The 10 Commandments”) used to say, “A memorable film score depends on a memorable, recognizable melody.” (I have that taped above my computer screen in my studio.)
For millennia, melodies have been used to teach humans to remember everything from their language’s alphabetical structure to military maneuvers. In other words, the right brain’s ability to remember melody quicker, and to hold on to it longer, is the platform on which words are placed. A strong melody can get ‘stuck’ in the brain as well as become associated with human emotions, moments in time and behavior far quicker than words ever can. And, like Barbara Boudreau, you too can instantly “be taken back” to a moment in time by a song. That’s the power of melody and the power of the song. As they say in Nashville, “The song is king.” If so, the melody must be queen and the lyric the prince or princess. So, long live the king and the royal family.
Samm Brown III is a record industry executive who is an RIAA award-winning record producer, songwriter, arranger, orchestrator and conductor, who has had nine number one records, (Michael Jackson, Maxine Nightingale and New Edition). He is also a film/TV composer, artist manager and hosts a weekly radio show on KPFK (90.7 fm) Sunday afternoons at 2pm called “Samm Brown’s For the Record” (a one-hour talk show exclusively focusing on the behind-the-scenes of the entertainment industry). He can be reached at sbrownKPFK@aol.com.