Early in the morning of Friday, August 15, 2014, less than a week after the fatal shooting the previous Saturday of African-American teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, rapper J. Cole ( Jermaine Lamarr Cole) posted his tribute song “Be Free” to the online audio platform SoundCloud, where users can upload tracks and share them through social media.

A little more than six hours later it had become the most talked about song on Twitter, and by afternoon it had gone viral, having been listened to over 250,000 times.

We are profoundly moved by the way the raw emotions aroused by the shooting have been sublimated and poignantly expressed in J. Cole’s song. Listen to the painful vulnerability in his breaking voice as he repeats the refrain, “All we want to do is take the chains off, All we want to do is be free.”

This certainly gives the lie to the stereotype of rap as simply loud, angry, racist gangster stuff saturated with references to misogyny and physical violence. (The complete lyrics, by the way, are available online.)

As you listen below, notice how the lyrics are greatly enhanced by the musical underpinning–an unchanging four-measure phrase stated some forty times, using three basic chords presented with a limping syncopation.

The bass line, which oscillates between the pitches of F and E, the melody itself, and two of the three chords draw entirely upon on what is called “the Phrygian mode”—a scale going back many centuries to Medieval practice.

You can try it out yourself by playing only the white piano keys from E to E. One of its distinctive features is the half-step between the first two notes, from E to F. This sound has been used by many composers to suggest the stark and the timeless.

Here is something else that might surprise you: it can be instructive to compare J. Cole’s “Be free” to two other modern examples of Phrygian- inspired music.

One is the first movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms; the other, the prayer intoned by Mahatmas Gandhi in the Philip Glass opera Satyagraha.

The Stravinsky, sung in Latin, uses Psalm 39, verses 12 and 13— an expression of human frailty and mortality in the face of Almighty power: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears; for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were. O spare me that I may recover strength before I go hence, and be no more.”

Satyagraha (satya= truth; agraha= firmness) celebrates Gandhi’s mode of non-violent protest. The vocal of the prayer consists of an unchanging ascending Phrygian melody sung in Sanskrit, which expresses Gandhi’s firm resolve as well as a connection to the Eternal on the eve of an Indian coal miner protest march he was to lead in the South Africa of 1913.




We recently saw a documentary film that is just opening now, so we want to call it to your attention. As you will read below, the film–Alive Inside–is quite novel and inspiring.


Memory is the measure of who we are as individuals. And much of our self-identity as human beings is defined by the pieces of music we know and love. They are so often key markers of our life’s journey. Some of our first posts on this blog dealt with music and memory. At the bottom of this post we you can re-read “Music and Personal Memory.”

The power of music’s intimate connection with memory was dramatized for us recently by the documentary Alive Inside : A Story of Music and Memory. Filmed over a span of some three years, it won the Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It is a remarkable testament to the regenerative power of music for patients with Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia, over-medicated people who had been languishing in a near-vegetative state in nursing homes all over the country.

Thanks to the initiative and perseverance of social worker Dan Cohen, not to mention a cadre of committed health care workers, personalized music is downloaded to iPods and brought to a wide range of nursing home patients, re-awakening in them deeply locked memories and giving them a new lease on life. Dan Cohen’s mission is bring such music to the 16,000 nursing homes in the U.S.

Speaking of numbers, it’s worth noting that there are now some 5 million in this country suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The number is expected to double within the next 25 years, with 1 in 6 of us likely to develop some form of dementia. The current research we draw on strongly suggests that this number can be reduced by choosing a lifestyle that supports mental alertness and positive emotions. Music can contribute directly to both–which is what this blog is about!

Here is the movie trailer for Alive Inside.

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And here is an early rough cut from the movie that went viral, being watched by over 6 million in just over 4 days. Henry, a 94-year-old dementia patient who was wheelchair-bound, was unable to recognize his daughter or even remember how many daughters he had. But he was “awakened” by one of his favorite musicians, Cab Calloway. You see him lighting up, singing, rocking and moving his arms, brought to life again by “his” music.

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 Here is one of our very first posts, on MUSIC AND PERSONAL MEMORY:

Is there any form of human expression more personal than music? How rarely, if ever, do we hear someone say, “That’s my kind of poem” or novel or play or painting?

Musical memories define so much of who we are and the many stations we pass through on life’s journey: your high school graduation, your first real love, your courtship, the first Broadway show or concert you attended, your loss of a loved one, your connection with your parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren.

For starters, think of such standards as “Memories of You,” “Memory Lane,” “Laura,” “Unforgettable,” or “Memory” in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats.

Or how about the Hoagy Carmichael classic, “Star Dust,” which is “a richly layered statement about memory. It is not simply a conventional ballad of love lost, but rather a song about a song, and the evocative power of that song, as a lover, solitary and forlorn, gazes at the stars, humming it in his head all the while” (Joshua Berrett, Louis Armstrong and Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004, 166).

The list goes on and on. How many operas, musicals, and movies depend on themes and motifs to recall or identify a situation or character?

Think of John Williams’ music for Darth Vader or Princess Leia in Star Wars, Verdi and his Ethiopian princess Aida, Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, Bernard Herrmann and his soundtrack for Hitchock’s Vertigo, James Horner’s “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic, and so many more.

What do you hear and feel when you listen to certain music? What music lives in your personal memory?

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