WEIRDLAND: Buddy Holly and the Science of Music

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Buddy Holly and the Science of Music

Rave On - A Buddy Holly Biography (2001) documentary.

The evolution of popular music: USA 1960–2010: Between 1960 and 2009, the mean frequency of H1 declined by about 75%. H1 captures the use of dominant-seventh chords. Inherently dissonant (because of the tritone interval between the third and the minor-seventh), these chords are commonly used in Jazz to create tensions that are eventually resolved to consonant chords featured in tracks such as “I Feel So Bad” by Elvis Presley; songs tagged blues or jazz have a high frequency of H1; it is especially common in the songs of Blues artists such as B.B. King and Jazz artists such as Nat ‘King’ Cole. The decline of this topic, then, represents the lingering death of Jazz and Blues in the Hot 100 Billboard. Styles and genres represent populations of music that have evolved unique characters (topics), or combinations of characters, in partial geographical or cultural isolation, like country music in the Southern USA during the 1920s.

Music historians attribute this wholesale change of rock to the British Invasion of the early 1960s, when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones arrived in America and were followed by dozens of other Brit bands. Computer analysis paints a different picture. The signature features of this era — such as loud guitar, major chords with no changes and bright, energetic melodies — predated the arrival of Brit bands. This theme makes sense, said Ohio State University music professor David Huron: “When we think of styles, the prototypes are often not the earliest examples.” But even though the Beatles and the Rolling Stones didn’t initiate the revolution, both bands had 66 hits on the Hot-100 before 1968. The remaining H-topics capture the evolution of other musical styles. H3, for example, embraces minor-seventh chords used for harmonic colour in funk, disco and soul. Between 1967 and 1977, the mean frequency of H3 more than doubles. H6 combines several chord changes that are a mainstay in modal rock tunes. Its increase between 1978 and 1985, and subsequent decline in the early 1990s, marks the age of Arena Rock.

Of all H-topics, H5 shows the most striking change in frequency. This topic, which captures the absence of identifiable chord structure, barely features in the 1960s and 1970s when, a few spoken-word-music collages aside (e.g. those of Dickie Goodman), nearly all songs had clearly identifiable chords. H5 starts to become more frequent in the late 1980s and then rises rapidly to a peak in 1993.

Accordingly, T1 is over-represented in songs tagged dance, disco and new wave and artists such as The Pet Shop Boys. After 1990, the frequency of T1 declines: the reign of the drum machine was over. Source:

In 1959, at age thirteen, Dodie Stevens had the #1 hit, gold record  “Tan Shoes & Pink Shoe Laces”. She followed with “Yes, I'm Lonesome Tonight” and “Merry, Merry Christmas Baby”, which all hit the Billboard charts in the early 60's. She toured worldwide with Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Paul Anka, Bobby Rydell and many more teen idols from that era.  In February 2009, she joined her peers in Clear Lake, Iowa at the Surf Ballroom to perform in a 5-day memorial concert, “Fifty Winters Later” (in memory of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper). 

By the beginning of 1959 the rumour about Buddy Holly visiting Cookham on Saturday March 1st 1958 had mostly been forgotten. Buddy Holly was in London where he was playing that evening at the Elephant and Castle Trocadero. Bored with the noise and bustle of London, Buddy decided to go for a train ride. When the young waitress Mary Brown served Buddy his glass of lemonade at the teashop, she wasn’t sure if this man was Buddy Holly. However when she was handed the signed sketch, there was absolutely no doubt. They say that when we dream, what appears to us to be a full-length story, only in fact takes a few seconds to flash through our mind. Folklore would have us believe that during Buddy Holly’s final moments, it would have been his whole life that flashed before him. On the morning of February 3rd Mary Brown woke suddenly from a terrible nightmare.  She had been dreaming that the chest of drawers in her bedroom was ablaze. It was 7 am.  Four thousand miles away in Iowa USA, it was  1am - and the precise moment the plane carrying Buddy Holly hit the ground. Mary sat on the edge of the bed for several minutes. Her heart was pounding.

Mary slowly opened the drawer.  This was the first time Mary had looked at the sketch since she'd put it away. Mary was rooted to the spot - shocked by her sister's sudden appearance. "He was at the tea shop," Elizabeth said venomously: "Give me the drawing." "No," Mary replied, turning to face her sister: "He gave it to me." Elizabeth grabbed the edge of the paper, to pull the sketch away from Mary. The paper ripped and Elizabeth ended up with a small corner of it in her hand. Without hesitating Mary tore the sketch in two. Then into four.  And she kept on tearing the page into smaller and smaller pieces until she reached the point that she couldn’t tear it any more.  Then she threw the pieces towards her sister - and these fluttered to the floor like snow flakes. Four thousand miles away in Iowa, the body of Buddy Holly was lying on the frozen ground not far from the mangled wreckage of the plane. Snow was gently falling from out of a pitch-black sky.  There were no stars showing.  And everything was absolutely silent. —The Last Dream of Buddy Holly (2016) by James Chalmers 

"Music transmitted from generation to generation shapes autobiographical memories, preferences, and emotional responses, a phenomenon we call cascading 'reminiscence bumps,'" explains psychological scientist and lead researcher Carol Lynne Krumhansl of Cornell University. To explore the connection between autobiographical memories and musical memories, Krumhansl and Justin Zupnick of the University of California, Santa Cruz asked 62 college-age participants to listen to two top Billboard hits per year from 1955 to 2009. And there was a 'reminiscence bump' for the music of the 1960s -- more than two decades before the participants were born. Krumhansl and Zupnick speculate that reminiscence for this music could have been transmitted from the participants' grandparents, who would have been in their 20s or 30s in the 1960s. Another possibility -- one that might be favored by those of the Baby Boomer generation -- is that the music of the 1960s is truly of higher quality. Source:

Music brings memories back to the injured brain: In their study, A. Baird and S. Samson played extracts from 'Billboard Hot 100' number-one songs in random order to five patients. The songs, taken from the whole of the patient's lifespan from age five, were also played to five control subjects with no brain injury. All were asked to record how familiar they were with a given song, whether they liked it, and what memories it invoked." The findings suggest that music is an effective stimulus for eliciting autobiographical memories and may be beneficial in the rehabilitation of autobiographical amnesia, but only in patients without a fundamental deficit in autobiographical recall memory and intact pitch perception." The authors hope to learn more about the clear relationship between memory, music and emotion; they hope that one day we might truly "understand the mechanisms underlying the unique memory enhancing effect of music." Source:

As a kid, Buddy Holly showed a quick aptitude for music, taking violin and piano lessons, and later steel guitar lessons. It wasn't until his older brother Travis Holley returned from the Marine Corps with a $15 pawnshop Harmony that Buddy took up guitar. "I taught him a few basic chords - - G,C,D,A,E," recalls Travis, "and before long he was telling me, 'No, Travis, you're playing it wrong, it should go like this.'" Buddy was very quick to learn.  -Larry Holley (The Buddy I Knew)

Peggy Sue Gerron had a crush on Buddy Holly since the day she had tripped over him in the halls of Lubbock High School. He reportedly complimented her as 'pretty' and she considered him 'attractive, not nerdy.' “Lubbock, Texas, in 1954 and 1955 was very, very provincial,” says Harold Womack, who was one year behind Holly at Lubbock High School. Another classmate, James Pritchard, says: “Buddy was pretty much of a loner, too. It was pretty hard on him around here for a while. A lot of people would laugh at some of the stuff he’d do.” “We called Buddy ‘Four Eyes’ because he was farsighted and wore glasses. Buddy was not popular in school. It was Buddy that impressed Elvis back stage after the concert at Fair Park Coliseum in 1955. Buddy showed Elvis how to play slide guitar when he was playing ‘Big Boss Man.’ Also, it was Larry Welborn that showed Bill Black, Elvis’s bass player, how to slap the bass by loosening the E string... They called us all rock hillbillies, then it was changed to rockabilly and Alan Freed started to call it rock-n-roll.” —Tinker Carlen interviewed by Dick Stewart for The Lance Monthly, May 2008 issue.

The essence of rock and roll genius is synthesis. Buddy Holly was the most innovative performer of the 1950s, the single most important rocker in the aftermath of Elvis, a Do-It-Yourself idol in an era of stars manipulated and puppeteered by backstage deals and big-bucks payola. Chuck Berry poeticized the 1950s teenage America, but his chord structures and melodic harmonies lacked Holly's classical sophistication. Jerry Lee Lewis played a great rock piano, but he didn't have Holly's versatility. Eddie Cochran, who was often described as 'James Dean with a guitar,' pioneered punk-rock. Holly was the most original, creating new progressions to the time-worn 12-Bar blues style. Elvis had a burning stage charisma and a panther strut, but Buddy Holly could ram raw rock and roll, coo croony ballads, wax weird comedy tunes, and slash a fiery Fender vibrato guitar. "Peggy Sue" showed Holly's genius in altering regular rock and roll to cult status: it glides in the guitar-friendly key of A major. On the third verse, Holly suddenly steeplechases into a weird, wild Polynesian F major chord. "Oh Boy" leads off on a traditional 12-bar Blues double verse, stomps off into a booming bridge on the downbeat dominant seventh chord E-7, throttling his way into rock and roll destiny. 

Philosophically, "It doesn't matter anymore" (a pioneer violin strings experiment) presages a glum world view, the grunge music (Kurt Cobain, Wilco) and musically is cutting-edge for 1959, rivaling "Everyday" as a profound music minuet. "It doesn't matter anymore" offers a voluptuous variation of the archetypical blues riff, sliding through the tonic notes, sensuously shuffling the root C and the G-A-Bb-A-G pyramid, blending a slide guitar with an unheard-of classical major seventh interval. Of all the 50's rock and roll giants, including Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly was the most selfless, the most talented and the most likable. He loved his music, his wife, and his fans. "Rock N Roll Gold Rush" (2003) by Maury Dean

"Most of the time Buddy Holly spent in Lubbock was dedicated to perfecting that art form, rock-n-roll, which he would bring to the misfit youth of America and the world. Buddy's dream changed the world. While Elvis will always be the King of Rock-n-Roll, Buddy Holly is most certainly its George Washington. Buddy brought Rock-n-Roll to the people who truly needed it. Buddy Holly gave hope to all the outcasts, misfits, artists, dreamers, shakers, wailers & moaners of the world."—"Buddy Holly: Master Dreamcrafter" (2000)  essay by Chris Oblesgy

Buddy’s father looked on Maria Elena as his daughter, he later told Goldrosen. L. O. Holley heaped extravagant praise on her, telling her that her marriage to his son was the most beneficial thing that had ever occurred in Buddy’s life: She had unleashed Buddy from Norman Petty’s strings, and marriage was transforming Buddy into a real “man.”  In 1993 Maria Elena recalls his farewell words to her before joining the Winter Dance Party tour in the late January 1959: “Buddy said, ‘I want you to take care of yourself and my baby.” In all likelihood, the last thing Buddy Holly saw was the face of Maria Elena and that of their unborn child. —"The Day Music Died: The Last Tour of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens" (2003) by Larry Lehmer

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