The questions asked and answered in this episode include: What is harmony exactly? What does it take to be a great rapper? How does sound travel?

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KID 1: Is it time yet?


KID 2: Any second now. It's almost here. Prepare yourselves.

KID 1: Yeah.

KID 3: But we can't wait.

ANNOUNCER 1: Hi. You're listening to Brains On--

MOLLY BLOOM: A show featuring awesome kids and the stuff that makes kids awesome. Today is all about music.

ANNOUNCER 1: We have some questions.

MOLLY BLOOM: What is harmony exactly?

ANNOUNCER 1: What does it take to be a great rapper?

MOLLY BLOOM: How does sound travel? We'll answer all these questions and more. Keep listening.

ALL (SINGING): It's time to get brains on. We're gonna get our smarts on. Fire up your neurons. It's time. It's time. It's time. It's time. Brains on!

MOLLY BLOOM: I'm Molly Bloom, and here with me today is Joe Heyman. Welcome, Joe.

JOE HEYMAN: Hi, Molly.

MOLLY BLOOM: Thanks so much for being here.

JOE HEYMAN: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

MOLLY BLOOM: So can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

JOE HEYMAN: Well, I am 12. I turn 13 in eight days.

MOLLY BLOOM: Happy birthday.

JOE HEYMAN: Thank you.

MOLLY BLOOM: So I understand that you are a musician.

JOE HEYMAN: Yes, I play trombone and bass guitar. I started playing trombone in fourth grade.

MOLLY BLOOM: And how did you start? How does the process of learning to play trombone go?

JOE HEYMAN: Well, first, you need to kind of, like, know how to play it and you need to buzz your lips in the mouthpiece first. And then you have to learn the notes. And the hardest part is moving the slide into different positions because you have to hit it, like, the exact position or it sounds strange. So that's quite hard.

MOLLY BLOOM: So how do they teach you how to do that?

JOE HEYMAN: Well, they kind of just teach you different notes and what positions they're in. And then they'll give you a sheet that shows you all the positions on the slide.

MOLLY BLOOM: So basically then your arm just kind of knows where to go for a different note?


MOLLY BLOOM: It's kind of like muscle memory at a certain point?


MOLLY BLOOM: Cool. And so then the buzzing in the mouthpiece, what does that motion feel like?

JOE HEYMAN: I don't know. It's easier to do it with a mouthpiece. It just sounds strange when you don't have a mouthpiece.

MOLLY BLOOM: I want to hear what it sounds like without the mouthpiece.


MOLLY BLOOM: Cool. And so how do you do it? You press your lips together and kind of blow while your lips are still together?


MOLLY BLOOM: I want to try it. [BLOWS] Oh.


I'm not a trombone player, clearly. So what is your favorite kind of music to listen to?

JOE HEYMAN: I like punk rock like the Clash and the Ramones.

MOLLY BLOOM: And you said you also play bass guitar?


MOLLY BLOOM: When did you start learning bass guitar?

JOE HEYMAN: When I was 10, I got it for my 10th birthday. I learned the bass a little bit after trombone.

MOLLY BLOOM: So which was easier to learn at first, would you say?

JOE HEYMAN: I'd say the trombone was easier to learn, but then it gets harder as you start playing harder stuff.

MOLLY BLOOM: If you're kind of learning the two instruments at the same time, did you look forward to practicing one more than another?

JOE HEYMAN: Yes, I liked practicing the bass a lot more.

MOLLY BLOOM: Why do you think that was?

JOE HEYMAN: Well, because then my bass teacher, he lets me bring in my own music and then he just teaches it to me. So I got to practice the songs that I like to practice. I was in a school band with the trombone, so I didn't get to choose what songs. Now I'm excited because we finally got a song that I really wanted, was The Final Countdown. So we have to play that one.

MOLLY BLOOM: Excellent. So how does that go for people who don't know it?

JOE HEYMAN: That one is the one that's like, [VOCALIZING]


MOLLY BLOOM: So there's a program at the North Minneapolis YMCA that teaches kids how to rap, and it's called Beats and Rhymes. We visited there to see what the key is to be a great rapper. And it turns out there's one thing that you can do that will automatically boost your rhyming skills.

SUBJECT 1: They'd be like A-L-V-O-N-T-A-E. And I ain't no DVD. Homie, you can't play me. Swagger to the maximum, that's the cruel specialty.

SUBJECT 2: I heard you're looking for candy man. If your boss need work, call me. I'm the handy man. Make the tough competition--

SUBJECT 3: Cool with my hands is in the pockets of my pants. Khakis is what we got.

SUBJECT 3: A-B-C, 1, 2, 3, I even know 6 equals 2 times 3. Fixing to channel cruise. What's on DirectTV?

ALVONTAE: (SINGING) America done did it all. Do we know what wrong is? And you're falling down for your beliefs. I mean, do you know what's strong is? Make haste and we'll get ahead. Wrong turn and your hope's dead. Never regret your truth. But you're regretting everything you said. Why though? Break bread. And you've murdered hate right into me. The one thing that is for sure lost, America, is dignity.


If you don't have a big vocabulary, most likely you're going to repeat everything that you said. And then the fans will pick up on that. And they'll be like, oh, he's not very good at rapping because he says the same thing in a lot of his verses. So I think, yeah, if you've know your vocab, I think it'll make rapping way easier.

MICAH: Well, when I was in about eighth grade, my mom used to make me read a dictionary because she knows that I want to be a rapper. And so she would pick words that I have to find them and then write the definition, like 100 times. So that helped me increase my vocabulary.

ERIC: Me, I like to read, a lot. I started reading when I was four. My bookshelf is full of books. I love it.

ALVONTAE: I was watching an interview on Eminem then. And he said like he would just open the dictionary and just read words. He would just keep reading every single day. And I did that for the longest time. I would just open the dictionary every single day and just write down a new word that I didn't know before. And I would just keep going and then when it came to rhyming, I'd be like, oh, yeah, this means that. Yeah, I love reading. It's cool.

MOLLY BLOOM: That was Micah, Eric, and Alvontae offering some advice about what it takes to be a good rapper. We also heard them rapping earlier, along with Antoni and Christopher. And that was Christopher's beatboxing you heard as well. And we're going to hear a song from Beats and Rhymes in just a little bit. So, Joe, you're in a band named Everest. What kind of music do you guys play?

JOE HEYMAN: Well, we used to play just Beatles music. And now we're playing other stuff too.

MOLLY BLOOM: Do you guys write your own songs?

JOE HEYMAN: We're going to do that eventually but not yet.

MOLLY BLOOM: For rap music, the words are pretty key to the whole thing. The beats are really important too. But the rhymes are pretty much in the spotlight. So the music that your band plays, would you say you're more interested in the lyrics or the music?

JOE HEYMAN: Oh, personally, I prefer the music to the lyrics because I'm not really the lead singer. I'm the backup.

MOLLY BLOOM: So when you are playing with a group of people, like in your band, what is the importance, would you say, of listening?

JOE HEYMAN: We have to listen to everything to make sure that we're not going too fast or too slow.

MOLLY BLOOM: So what advice would you give to someone who is also interested in starting a band?

JOE HEYMAN: Well, really have to find people that you work well with together because if you're with some people that you don't really know, it's not going to work out as good, because then you're not as good a friend, so you don't get along as well maybe. So you really want somebody that you're good friends with and that you will listen to and take their ideas too.

MOLLY BLOOM: Speaking of listening, it's time for the mystery sounds.


MOLLY BLOOM: Here it is.


Any guesses?

JOE HEYMAN: It sounded like a strange recorder maybe.

MOLLY BLOOM: That is an excellent guess but not quite. So while you're mulling that over, the Brains On players are here to explain how it is that we're able to hear music at all.

SPEAKER: On Earth when you scream, it sounds like this--


--but in space, no one can hear you scream. That's because in space there is no air and sound needs air or some other substance to travel. And now for a brief explanation--

SPEAKER: How sound travels.

SPEAKER: Sound starts when you make a noise, like when Marc plays the drums. Hit it, Marc.


Nice. Now, when Marc hits that drum, the drum vibrates. Basically, it goes wiggle, wiggle, wiggle just a little. And all around that drum is air. And when the drum wiggles, it bumps into that air.

AIR: Oh, excuse me.

SPEAKER: And that bump makes the air wiggle too.

AIR: Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.

SPEAKER: And because it's wiggling--

AIR: Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.

SPEAKER: --that air bumps into more air.

AIR: Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.

AIR: Pardon me.

AIR: Excuse me.

AIR: Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.

SPEAKER: And they both start to wiggle.

AIR: Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.

SPEAKER: And they bump more air.

AIR: Look out. Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.

SPEAKER: And that air wiggles and on and on and on, until the vibration from that drum travels like a wiggling wave of air.

AIR: Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.

SPEAKER: We call it a sound wave. And when that sound wave reaches your ear, your ear feels it and realizes it's hearing something.

EAR (OVER RADIO): Brain, we're getting an incoming sound down here.

BRAIN (OVER RADIO): All right, translate it and send it on up.

EAR (OVER RADIO): Roger, brain, over and out.

SPEAKER: Then your ear decodes the wiggle and sends the message to the brain that it just heard Marc playing the drums.

BRAIN (OVER RADIO): Nice drumming, Marc. All of that happens in the blink of an eye. That's because sound travels fast, almost 350 meters a second. The further away you are, the longer it takes sound to reach you. That's why you see lightning first and hear thunder later.

It takes a few seconds for all those wiggling air particles to travel from the lightning to your ear. Sound can also travel through water, through walls, through metal even through jello, all by making the particles of those things wiggle. So now you know how sound works. And with that, take it away, Marc.


MOLLY BLOOM: But back to the mystery sound. Let's hear it again.


Do you want to hear a hint?


STEVE RAYMER: You move your hand closer and further, up and down if you're the same distance won't change the note.

JOE HEYMAN: Oh, I know what it is. Isn't it a hand organ or something? I don't really remember what it's called. But you move your hand up and down and around a stick of metal. And then it makes a different sound.

MOLLY BLOOM: Yes, you are extremely close. And I think actually you'd be really good at playing this as a trombone player because I tried playing it. And it was ugly, let me tell you. But you'd be really good. I would love to hear you play it, actually.


So that instrument is called a theremin. And it's named for the Russian scientist who invented it. It's been used in soundtracks--


--in pop music.


And it's an instrument that is played without ever actually touching it. And that clip of me playing the theremin really, really poorly was recorded at the Pavek Museum of Broadcasting, where I got to talk to Steve Raymer about how this instrument works.

STEVE RAYMER: Where the action takes place is with these two antennas. There's a vertical whip antenna. And then there's a horizontal loop antenna. The horizontal loop is the volume control. And the vertical whip is the pitch control. It changes the notes.

And it takes two hands to play a theremin. The right hand plays the notes. The left hand adjusts the volume. Closer is higher. And then if you touch it-- that's what happens if you touch it. Our bodies, which do conduct electricity can act like the plate of a capacitor when brought into the electric field that surrounds the theremin's antenna.

A capacitor is essentially two conductors, two metal plates separated by something that doesn't conduct, either air or some kind of insulator. The antenna is actually part of an oscillator circuit that we detune when we get close to it. And the closer we get, the more we detune the signal.


JOE HEYMAN: That sounds like what they would use to make like that alien music.

MOLLY BLOOM: The funny thing is that that instrument sounds really science fictiony, like it should be in a movie about aliens. But the instrument itself was actually invented in the 1920s. So it's a newer instrument. But it's not that new. So since that's sort of the instrument of the future, what do you think the next instrument of the future will be?

JOE HEYMAN: I think they're going to create an instrument that you don't even need to touch. You just put some things on your ears or something or on your forehead. And then you just think about what you want to play. And then you just-- it plays it.

MOLLY BLOOM: So it's like one step removed from the theremin. So you don't even have to move your body at all. It's just all in your brain.

JOE HEYMAN: Or it's like air guitar, except you plug it into an AMP or you put something on your hands and then you just play what you'd think it would be. And then it'd be like you have a guitar, except you don't have a guitar.

MOLLY BLOOM: That would be awesome.

JOE HEYMAN: It would be awesome.

BOY: (SINGING) See, it started way back when. It was such a thrill. It got discovered by the man on the $100 bill. His name was Benjamin Franklin. And he was one of the greatest-- I know-- inventors of his time. And that's the reason why he's famous. It was 1752 on stormy, stormy night.

He found himself a metal key and then attached it to his kite. And it was struck by lightning. It was so exciting. And the world has not been the same since. It's quite a nice thing. If it wasn't for electricity, we wouldn't have the energy to record these songs, the most important part of the recipe. So, Glenn, flip the switch. So we can power up, pro tools. This stuff is so cool. Thank God for electricity. Electricity. Yeah, I hope you learned something.

MOLLY BLOOM: You can find more songs from the Beats and Rhymes program at

SPEAKER: Testing, one, two, testing.

SPEAKER: Brains On.

SPEAKER: Brains On.

SPEAKER: Brains On.

SPEAKER: Brains On.

SPEAKER: Brains On.

SPEAKER: Brains On.

SPEAKER: Brains On.

SPEAKER: Brains On music.

MOLLY BLOOM: Now it's time to talk about arguably the oldest instrument, the human voice.

SPEAKER: Petra Haden recently released a record of famous movie soundtracks made up of nothing but layers of her own voice.

MOLLY BLOOM: Our friend Marc Sanchez spoke with her about how harmony works.

PETRA HADEN: Harmony, it starts with a chord, which is a key of notes. There's eight notes in a chord. A C chord with would be--


So you got your root note which is--


--and the last note which is an octave higher, which is--


And so you have all those notes in between. And if you number of them, it's a lot easier to understand, like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. It started when I was probably maybe even younger than seven. I used to sing a lot with my sisters in the house. We would sing harmonies all the time, sing songs.

And one of us would pick the root note. And one of us would be the middle. And the other would be the high harmony. And it was something that just came so natural to us that we loved doing it. And we used to sing and play our instruments. So if you want to sing a third, you sing the one and the three, which is--


So I'm skipping number two, which is--


So you sing--



MARC SANCHEZ: Can I try number one?


MARC SANCHEZ: And you do number three?

PETRA HADEN: Of course.



MARC SANCHEZ: Pretty close, yeah. So that's a one and a three?

PETRA HADEN: Yeah, exactly. That's a major third. An easy way to learn harmony is if you sing a song in round-- Can you sing "Row Row Row Your Boat?"

MARC SANCHEZ: Sure, I'll give it a shot. (SINGING) Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream.

PETRA HADEN: (SINGING) Row, row, row your boat--

MARC SANCHEZ: (SINGING) Merrily merrily--

PETRA HADEN: (SINGING) --gently down--


PETRA HADEN: (SINGING) --the stream.

MARC SANCHEZ: (SINGING) Life is but a dream.

PETRA HADEN: (SINGING) Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream. Think of it in terms of numbers. And harmony is really created by playing more than one note at a time. And these notes can be understood by the relationship to the root note with all the other notes. It's always easy for us to learn a melody of a song. But learning to sing a harmony can be difficult sometimes because all the different notes are going on at the same time.

MARC SANCHEZ: And it has to be precise too.


MARC SANCHEZ: And you know it if it's not.

PETRA HADEN: Yeah, someone will make a sour face, like, whoa, where did that come from?

MARC SANCHEZ: So what you do a lot is you make music with your voice. Can you tell me what-- is that a cappella? Can you tell me what that is?

PETRA HADEN: It's singing without any instruments playing in the background. So what we were doing is a cappella.

MARC SANCHEZ: You're doing a lot with your mouth and your throat. Do you do any sort of exercises to keep that instrument in shape?

PETRA HADEN: Yeah, sometimes I sing the octave below. Well, I'll sing an A or like--


I can't do it right now. But I'll just do that in another room to not bother anyone. If I sing a song that has lots of quick notes, I'll try to just do--


It's hard to do, especially now as you could hear because I haven't been practicing, which I will when I get home. But it does help a lot with performing and also just doing things with your mouth like blah, even just going like blah, blah.

MARC SANCHEZ: It kind of stretches your mouth out.

PETRA HADEN: Yeah, so that helps your mouth not feel so tense and crazy. If practicing music, if you're starting an instrument or you're starting to sing and you get frustrated, just keep doing it because that frustration will pass. And it is fun. It will be fun. And don't worry about what anyone thinks of how you're playing or how you're singing. Be true to yourself. And just sing how you want to sing. And you'll be glad you did.


MOLLY BLOOM: That's all for this episode of Brains On.

JOE HEYMAN: This episode was produced by Marc Sanchez, Sanden Totten, and Molly Bloom.

MOLLY BLOOM: Many thanks to--


And thanks, Joe.

JOE HEYMAN: Thanks, Molly.


KIDS: (SINGING) It's time to get our Brains On. We're going to get our smarts on. Fire up your neurons. It's time. It's time. It's time. It's time. Brains On!

MOLLY BLOOM: Head on over to for more episodes and other fun stuff.

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