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Lucy in the scientific method

By Tim Kasser


Humans seem to love attempting to understand the meaning of songs. Back in my college days, I spent many hours talking with friends about what this or that song must mean. Nowadays, numerous websites are devoted to providing space for fans to dissect and share their interpretations of their favorite songs (e.g. Song Meanings, Song Facts, and Lyric Interpretations). There is even a webpage with a six-step program for understanding a song’s meaning.

As a scientist and a psychologist, I usually find myself rather dissatisfied with the explanations I see on these sites, as well as the ones that my friends and I generated back in my youth. The explanations given often feel too simplistic, as though a single biographical fact could explain the whole scope of a song. They may also be based on an intuitive hunch, rather than good theorizing about why people create what they do. Other times, the interpreter seems to lose all sense of objectivity and instead projects his or her own concerns or issues onto the artist–I know I’ve been guilty of that one! Or the interpreter seems all too willing to accept the artist’s own explanation for the song, when we know from a good deal of psychological research that people are not so good at explaining their own behaviors and motivations.

For the last decade or so, I’ve been trying to avoid these mistakes as I’ve attempted to understand John Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” There are three standard explanations given for the meaning of the song, but each has its problems.

Probably the most popular explanation is that the song is about tripping on the drug LSD. Certainly Lennon did a lot of drugs around the time he wrote this song, and the initials of the song are the same as the drug.

Problem: Lennon always denied that the song was about LSD, even though he admitted other songs (like “Tomorrow Never Knows”) were about the drug. Why would he deny a drug reference in this case but not the others?

Another oft-repeated explanation for the song is that it is about a picture John Lennon’s almost four-year-old son Julian gave him–a picture of Julian’s friend Lucy, floating in the sky with diamonds. All I’ve read suggests that such a moment in time did indeed occur, and there is little doubt that Julian’s picture does look like a girl floating in a diamond-filled sky.

Problem: Why would this picture lead Lennon to write these lyrics, as opposed to some other lyrics? There are no “plasticine porters” or rivers or train stations in Julian’s drawing.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Amsterdam, 1969. Nationaal Archief, Den Haag. CC-BY-SA-3.0-nl via Wikimedia Commons.

Lennon’s own explanation, shared a dozen years after he wrote the song, was that it was about his “dream girl” who turned out to be Yoko Ono, even though he hadn’t met her yet. This is certainly a psychologically deeper explanation than any of the others.

Problem: Why did Lennon deny that he knew Yoko at the time he wrote the song when his biography makes it clear they had met months earlier and had even eaten lunch at his house? And if she was his dream girl, why is Lucy constantly “gone” in the song?

Given my dissatisfaction with these explanations and the non-scientific approach to understanding a song’s meaning that is so often used, I set about developing a three step process that I hoped would provide a rigorous, scientifically-based way of understanding “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” (Time will tell how well it works for other songs by other artists.)

Step 1: Derive a full description of the song.

Describing what needs to be studied is the first step any scientist must take when trying to explain any phenomenon. I therefore sought to describe the characteristics of this particular creative expression by adapting four established methods that other researchers had used in the past.

The first method I used was to run a linguistic word count program on the song. I then compared the results from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to other songs Lennon had written and other popular songs of the time. This helped me see the style in which Lennon had written the song.

The second method involved conducting a “scripting analysis” of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and Lennon’s two earliest songs. This helped me to understand whether their narrative structures were similar (which would suggest a theme of long-standing concern for Lennon). I even had another psychologist, naïve to my purposes, derive a script.

An “association analysis” was the third method I used. For this, I mapped out the basic themes likely to have been on Lennon’s mind when he chose the specific words he used in the song’s lyrics. To this end, I reviewed all of his previous songs to see how he had earlier used each of the words that made up “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

For the fourth method, I applied a similar method as the third to identify the musical idioms and structures that Lennon used in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to identify the previous two songs that were most musically similar to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. I thought doing so might tell me what was on Lennon’s mind when he chose the particular melody, key, etc., that he used in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Thus, by the end of this first step, I had obtained a relatively objective, multi-faceted, and multi-theoretical description of the song Lennon had created in the winter of 1966/1967.

Step 2: Understand the context of the song’s creation.

Why had this man written this song at this time of his life? I read biographies to better understand Lennon’s formative experiences (such as his early life and adolescence), the stresses he had recently been under (such as death threats), the drugs he recently had been taking (LSD), and the “activating event” that spurred this particular creative act (i.e. Julian’s drawing). I then connected these data to relevant psychological and empirical literatures, such as attachment theory, grief research, and what we know about the effects of massive doses of LSD on the mind.

At the end of this step, I had obtained a sense of who Lennon was, what he’d been going through recently, and what spurred him on to this particular creation. At this point I could hazard an explanation of what I thought the song was about.

Step 3: Test my explanation by looking at songs Lennon wrote next.

I decided to test my explanation by examining the songs that Lennon wrote in the three years after “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” I was particularly interested to see whether Lennon continued to express the themes that seemed to have led to the creation of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” when, later in his life, he experienced stresses and situations similar to the ones he had gone through in 1966 and early 1967.

In closing, some might argue that this kind of scientific approach to understanding the meaning of a song is too objective, and too clinical, that it robs artistic creations of their mystery and magic. Other researchers who use the scientific method in the realm of human experience (e.g. religion, life, cosmology) have certainly received similar critiques of their work.

Nonetheless, I continue to hold that if someone really wants to know what a song might mean, there is no better approach than to apply the methods of science in a rigorous, systematic, and theoretically-informed way.

I also have the sense that the understanding that comes from this process does not rob the song of its beauty or meaning. Knowing the science behind sunsets hasn’t made me less awed by their beauty, and understanding what was on Lennon’s mind when he wrote “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” has not made me think any less of the song. Indeed, just the opposite.

Tim Kasser is Professor of Psychology at Knox College. His publications include Lucy in the Mind of Lennon, The High Price of Materialism, and many scientific articles and book chapters. Tim enjoys playing the piano (including blues and Beatles’s songs), interpreting dreams, and spending time with his family at their home in the western Illinois countryside.

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