Bob Dylan was honored last week with a Nobel Prize in Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” This was big news in the music world, but what really caught my eye is that he is the first American to be honored in this category since 1993, when Toni Morrison received the honor.

So, I began to consider Dylan and Morrison together and wonder why, over the past quarter-century, have these two storytellers in particular been singled out for a Nobel? Certainly songwriting and fiction are different mediums of expression, but the worlds these two have illuminated through their stories — each with their unique cadence & language — have become iconic, inspiring generations of wordsmiths to come. Their work is personal, political, universal: Dylan and Morrison have spent their lives telling the story of their American experience in a way that resonates with all of us — illuminating social and civil injustices, inspiring movements.

And to me, that’s what’s so special about the American arts, and is exemplified by Dylan — at its best, music inspires dialogue between ourselves as individuals, as communities and as a nation. The change itself may be glacial, but it can be spurred along through a song, novel or other work of art that shares a distinct point of view and forces us to confront and question our reality. And the strength of creative voices like Dylan is, both now and in the future, fundamentally connected to the protection of our constitutional freedoms, and our lawmakers’ willingness to ensure these freedoms for all. At our best, our artists startle us, challenge us, make us acknowledge our collective flaws and demand better. And that’s uniquely American.

Amy Crawford is Senior Producer at Man Made Music.
You can find her on Twitter @amyecrawford.

Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now
–David Bowie, “Lazarus”

The work and legacy of David Bowie was very much on our minds this week as we learned of his passing. I remember just a few weeks ago watching the first, eponymous video from Blackstar with the rest of the MMM team, mouths agape at the stunning sound and visuals. We were, as always, in awe of Bowie’s latest evolution. And the New Yorker in me was thrilled to hear the all-star lineup of Donny McCaslin, Tim Lefebvre, Mark Guiliana and Jason Lindner, whom Bowie had discovered at 55 Bar while looking for inspiration with his longtime producer, Tony Visconti. For myself and many other musicians, Blackstar symbolized hope: for uncompromised artistry, for unexpected collaborations, for taking the time to create great music with people in a room, together.

What we didn’t realize was that as much as this record seemed to herald a new beginning for a living legend, it was also a farewell. The world’s response has been striking. We all have a favorite Bowie song. And because his catalog was so varied, so prolific, and because he was so willing to collaborate with others, everyone’s favorite song is different — the number of deep cuts I’ve seen shared on social media this week reminds me of how important it is for any artist to take risks, experiment, and express themselves, because the work will always resonate with someone, somewhere. Bowie’s final album, confronting death head-on, is deeply personal but also universal — and its fearlessness demands that we refuse to compromise our own creativity, and use art to navigate our greatest challenges and dreams now and into the future.

Here’s a playlist highlighting some of my favorite Bowie cuts, collaborations and artists who were deeply influenced by this great master.

Image via Flickr / Brandon Carson / Masayoshi Sukita

Amy Crawford is Senior Producer at Man Made Music. Talk to her on Twitter @amyecrawford.

Man Made Music has worked on a number projects of late revolving around education, targeting youth ranging in age from early childhood through adolescence. It’s a great challenge: how can we meaningfully enhance systems of learning with sonic?

Then I started to wonder… how is it that I can remember the melody and lyrics to every early-2000s boy band single (which my angsty teen self didn’t even enjoy!) but recalling all American Presidents in chronological order (which I was required to learn several times over in school) leaves me scratching my head? I did some research and found a few interesting answers.

First, patterns: researchers have found that playing unfamiliar music stimulates the superior temporal gyrus, which is the part of the brain responsible for pattern recognition; and the nucleus accumbens, where expectations and prediction-making happen. When a test subject heard a song she liked, these two regions fired up and connected with each other in dramatic fashion.1

Then, consider melodic and rhythmic structures in music and song – all patterns. With melody, we set melodic structure and pitch. With lyrics, we set a temporal structure and often a rhyme scheme as well. If you’re trying to recall the words to a song and the melody and lyric you’re thinking of don’t match the song form in terms of rhythm and rhyme, there’s a good chance you’re wrong. Song form essentially narrows down the problem space and helps you get to a solution more quickly. That’s the beauty of Schoolhouse Rock. Our brains are built to detect patterns and make associations, and sound stimuli strengthen those parts of the brain even more.

Second, proteins: We all joke about becoming forgetful in our old age, but there’s something to it. Another study of brain function focused on two proteins, called NR2A and NR2B, that help create new connections in the brain. Older brains produce increased levels of NR2A, which was shown to help create short-term memories more easily, but also makes it more difficult to weaken the brain’s connection to older, long-term memories. Essentially, “learning becomes more difficult as we age… because we fail to forget the old stuff.” What we learn pre-adolescence sticks with us for a lifetime.2

How does this ladder back to what we do at Man Made Music? Using music and sound strategically in the design of education tools for young people can dramatically impact students’ abilities to remember information and strengthens the parts of the brain that are crucial to our ability to synthesize information, detect patterns, and find solutions. Implementing sonic tools in early childhood education can ensure that what we learn in our youth actually sticks. Hopefully more educators and curriculum designers see the potential here, and with any luck, my children will be able to remember their presidential history with aplomb.

1. Robert Ferris. “Obsessing Over A New Song? Blame Your Superior Temporal Gyrus.Business Insider. 11 April 2013.
2. Douglas Quenqua. “Older Brain Is Willing, but Too Full.The New York Times. 21 January 2013.

When I first heard about Sleep No More, a site-specific interactive theatrical work created by Punchdrunk, the production was still somewhat of a mystery to the public. I had heard it was based around Shakespeare’s Macbeth, that guests received masks to wear and were not allowed to speak and that there was a secret top floor that only a handful of visitors get to experience. When I purchased my tickets, I was prepared for an intensely visual experience. I hadn’t thought much about what Sleep No More would sound like, nor how vital a role sound would play in making the performance completely immersive.

The evening was utterly visceral and exhilarating: discovering hidden spaces, following actors as they moved about their journeys, discovering a love letter left tucked inside a book, sitting in an empty room, breathlessly waiting for what might happen next. Visually, the entire production was striking, but it was the sonic experience that pulled me in emotionally and made me truly believe.

Every moment was precisely choreographed to music and sound. I felt like I was like living inside of a film.* The music would rise in intensity or volume to signal the beginning or end of of a new scene. The sound of a particular room would help make the environment instantly more familiar (Is this room safe? Will something bad happen here?). The sound of the environment was just as strategic as the visuals in shaping each guest’s experience, whether one knew it or not.

What’s more, the parallels to the video gaming world were striking. Sound wasn’t just used to set the scene and establish ambience; it also told me where to go. Sound propelled the action of the actors and motivated the audience’s choices. “Sonic clues” led my way through the labyrinth. If I got lost, the sound of a room helped me realize if I had been there before. Each guest’s experience was uniquely his/her own.

Immersive experiences like Sleep No More herald a new phase of bold experimentation in audience engagement, and sonic is essential to bringing the audience “all-in.” It’s fascinating to watch these concepts and technologies bleed into in other areas of life and culture. Prime examples include the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift; Google’s Night Walk project; retail stores that are crafting total experiences for their customers; and countless pop-up shops conceived as interactive portals to a brand’s “world.” As our world becomes more digital, I’m fascinated by how so many brands, entertainers and venues are investing in these individualized, total-sensory experiences for their customers – and how important music and sound are to making us believe in even the most fantastic ideas.

*I later learned that several of Bernard Hermann’s film scores (including Psycho, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much) dominate the soundtrack of the evening. Check them out!

What makes a song a hit?* What are the magical elements – including melody, arrangement, hook, lyrics and voice – and how do they come together to create a song that resonates with people worldwide? Sure, money and marketing can contribute to how visible a song is in the marketplace, but when the promotion cycle is over and we look back on the year’s most impactful songs (or the decade’s, or the century’s), can we identify the components of a song’s success, and can we use this information to craft the hit songs of the future?

What We Do Know: Emotional Connections Matter

While songwriting isn’t exactly a science, researchers are working on identifying the recurring characteristics of hit songs: The Billboard Experiment has some neat data you can play with that shows how songs charting on the Billboard Hot 100 have evolved over eight decades, using variables including song length, tempo, loudness, time signature, key signature and artist familiarity.

And just this year, researchers at North Carolina State University released a list of the top 12 most common lyric themes found in No. 1 hit songs throughout 60 years of Billboard Hot 100 chart history. These themes are largely emotional – “breakup” being the most popular – and reflect the social and political mood of each decade. Top lyric themes include:

• 1960s: Nostalgia, Pain, Rebellion
• 1970s: Nostalgia, Rebellion, Jaded
• 1980s: Loss, Aspiration, Confusion
• 1990s: Loss, Inspiration, Escapism
• 2000s: Inspiration, Pain, Desperation

NCSU researchers also found that they could predict within 73.4% accuracy whether a song had reached the Billboard Hot 100 if the song’s lyrics contained themes of loss, despair, aspiration, breakup, pain, inspiration or nostalgia. Dr. David Henard, who led this study, says, “There is a limited range of widely accepted themes that get at the heart of human experience and resonate with a large and diverse population of consumers…. Communications centered on emotional themes have mass audience appeal.” You can read the paper here.

The Key to Successful Songwriting

Ultimately, I feel that the key to successful songwriting lies in finding new ways to write about universal emotional themes – striking the balance between familiarity and surprise. What are some things you can do, then, aside from getting your heart broken for the sake of art? Here are some of my favorite tips:

• Learn the songs you love inside and out – transcribe them, examine their form, try “rewriting” the melody or lyrics to a song you already know
• Collaborate with others – don’t hoard your favorite ideas, share them
• Keep a journal of your song ideas, no matter how small (I like to use voice memos on my phone!)
• Compiling a list of potential song titles to work from is a great way to clearly establish an emotional theme and lyrical hook early on in your writing process. It’s also a fun exercise to help escape writer’s block
• Get serious about critiquing and editing your work – but learn how to finish
• And simply, write as many songs as you can

Songwriter Dan Wilson (of ‘90s band Semisonic, who has gone on to write with Adele, Taylor Swift, P!nk and more) has some great Vines about his songwriting process

And for fun, check out Brett Domino’s tutorial on hit songwriting via YouTube.

*Note: Here, a “hit song” means a song that charts on the Billboard Hot 100. Whether or not a “hit song” is a “good song” is entirely up to you!