Musical Literacy — 6 Songs To Represent Rock n’ Roll

Musical Literacy - 6 Songs to Represent Rock n' Roll

The texts: This is Your Brain on Music, book (Daniel Levitin), various songs (various artists)
The media: book, songs
The thought: Society has a de facto schema of cultural knowledge that we expect everyone to have — in subjects from literature, music, mathematics and many others.
The lesson: It is unreasonable to set standards for wide ranges of material; everyone must set their own and be open to learning about other people’s preferences.

The concept of cultural literacy, or the standards of what we ought to know in our society and culture, is not new. I’m sure there are earlier examples of the movement, but in my introductory education course, we discussed E.D. Hirsch‘s controversial idea that there is a core of essential, non-negotiable knowledge that students must have to be culturally competent. He published a prescriptive list of what ought to be taught, and roused a lot of rabble over the concept of educational standards.

I have a lot of feelings about standards in schools: on the one hand, I am glad to have had the thorough education I did, thanks to my teachers’ adherence to standards. On the other hand, I think standards often stifle teachers and students alike, and that a freer learning experience can be a significant boon to students. Certainly, most people feel a bit ruffled when other people tell them what to know. In high school, I got very offended when people were shocked at my ignorance of this or that movie, band, or other pop culture symbol. Naturally, there followed a zombielike period of watching I Love the 70s/80s/90s and downloading songs by bands like The Kinks and Queen, even though my style was more Something Corporate and Japanese pop. And in college, I used my Netflix gift account to watch cult classics people always talked about, just to be in on the secret. I figured out the secret pretty fast: these things people talked so much about were really enjoyable, and they made people want to talk about them.

The benefit of cultural literacy-shaming, which seems to be a big thing for teenagers of all generations (lightbulb: is it only in the middle class and above?), is that we expand our range of taste and experimentation. My musical preferences have changed a lot since high school; while I still like Something Corporate and J-pop, I am also more willing to embrace artists whose influence rests outside my natural preference. Of course, a lot of this expansion was helped by sharing with my peers.

Musical Literacy - 6 Songs To Represent Rock n' Roll

OK, here is where three ideas collide: cultural literacy, music and the expansion of taste. Have you heard of Spotify? It’s a music platform based on the social sharing of our favorite music. Now, have you heard of This Is Your Brain on Music? It’s Daniel Levitin’s book on the psychology and neuroscience of music. I highly recommend it, both for its educated but accessible science of music, and for its lessons in pop culture literacy. One of the most exciting parts of this book is Levitin’s expert references to key songs/pieces in contemporary music that uses to illustrate different musical concepts.

There is so much to share from Levitin’s book, especially in the songs he references. I’ve made a few Spotify playlists of the songs he discusses, and I’m excited to share them with you! Here’s the first, which neatly ties in with the concept of cultural literacy:


If you don’t use Spotify, I won’t judge you!I know some people even have concerns about the ethical copyright practices behind it. For my part, I trust it because it’s been around a few months already and hasn’t been sued! [ETA: Check out this Gizmodo post about the money and legal questions behind Spotify.] The program seems to make enough sales through ads and premium accounts to support the rights to stream so much music for free. Either way, for non-Spotify users, here is a YouTube playlist: TIYBOM: 6 Songs to Represent Rock n’ Roll (no YouTube embedding on free WordPress).

I’m sure hardcore fans will have plenty to say about these choices; Levitin himself was wary of choosing so few songs to represent an entire genre, but he felt compelled to answer this question posed of him. What would you choose if someone asked you which six songs represented rock and roll? Electronica? Dubstep…? Share in the comments!

Finally, a somewhat unrelated question for you: What do you think about my citing Wikipedia (see E.D. Hirsch link) on this blog? Is it irresponsible for projects of an educational nature to sanction the use of this highly controversial tool?


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