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Beverly Beckham

Songs that stick in your head

Sheet music to “Over the Rainbow, by Harold Arlen.

Sheet music to “Over the Rainbow, by Harold Arlen.

I used to dread reading comprehension tests. “What did the author mean when he wrote . . . In one sentence, state the story’s theme.”

I never wanted to analyze a story. I just wanted to enjoy it.

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Once you grow up, there are a lot of bad things that happen to you in life, but one good thing is that no one ever again forces you to dissect a book. Even those annoying reading group guides too often in the back of novels these days (“How did the author manage to?” And, “Which scenes affected you most and why?”) can be, thank God, skipped over.

Dissecting art is simply not my thing. Once, when I was in high school, I typed the entire short story “Sixteen” by Maureen Daly, on erasable bond, copying it word for word from my best friend Rosemary’s “Adventures in American Literature” textbook, hoping that my fingers might memorize the cadence of the words and the words themselves. And that someday I would write a story like that one.

But it wasn’t dissecting. It was like practicing penmanship, duplicating what was, different from “What did the author mean?”

I never once thought about analyzing music. “What did the composer mean when he wrote . . . ?” “Why this chord and not that?” “Why an eighth-note and not a sixteenth?” No, thank you. I like what I hear or I don’t like it. That’s been my take on music my whole life.

Until three weeks ago. That’s when I learned about Rob Kapilow, conductor, composer, and commentator, who for 20 years has had a show on NPR called “What Makes It Great,” which asks the question, what makes a piece of music unforgettable?

You have to listen to him, someone told me. So I did.

My question is: Why have I only just now heard of him?

What makes music get in your head and stay there? What makes it a classic? What magic is at work in a song like “Over the Rainbow,” written by Harold Arlen for the 1939 movie “The Wizard of Oz,” with words by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, which has been beloved for more than 70 years?

Kapilow answers these questions. On his website, I read: “Rob Kapilow takes listeners inside the music: he unravels, slows down, and recomposes key passages to hear why a piece is so extraordinary.”

I clicked on to his “Over the Rainbow” podcast and in 10 minutes he had me hooked, because there I was at the end of it, listening to a song I’ve heard a zillion times, but hearing it suddenly in a whole new way.

I clicked on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and “America the Beautiful “ and Gershwin’s “Summertime” and Mozart and Sondheim, all just 10-minute segments, but each like a roller coaster ride, dizzying and exciting and so much fun that I kept going back for more.

“One of the amazing things about the great songs of American musical theater is that somehow within 32 measures, they manage to tell a complete, satisfying, emotional narrative,” he said.

And everything I’ve ever disliked about dissecting a story flew out the window.

The Celebrity Series of Boston is hosting Kapilow on Sunday at 3 p.m. at Jordan Hall, in a program about the songs of Harold Arlen. He’ll be back in January, and he has a website (www.robkapilow.com) where you can listen to him.

There’s so much to choose from in our crazy, busy world. Where to go? What to do? It’s easy to miss a gem like this.

In one of his segments, Kapilow says about music, “It’s amazing how many different kinds of beginnings you can have. . . . Some pieces walk right in the door and announce completely who they are in one second.”

The same can be said about Kapilow.

Beverly Beckham can be reached at beverlybeckham@ me.com.
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