Listen: • Collab 3 • 11 September 2020

Playlist by Pranathi: I find that the music I enjoy most leaves me wanting more over the course of a tune, employing pauses, rhythm, timber, and orchestration to create a mood of anticipation, until it is finally resolved at the musician’s will. In this set, I enlist songs from jazz, funk, and soul repertoires to conjure up the haunting mood of anticipation searching for resolution. Our ideas of mysterious sounds are undoubtedly shaped by their use in visual media, but with this playlist, I explore how music can take us on that journey purely aurally, without visual cues.

Pranathi Diwakar appreciates good tunes, good naps, and good writing. She’s also a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at the University of Chicago.

Response by Josh: From the Pink Panther theme and the soundtrack of an Indian noir-comedy to Klezmer-inspired jazz and Herbie Hancock, listening to this playlist turned my otherwise ordinary grocery shopping outing into an immersive mystery/film noir/detective drama experience. Listening a second time at home, I began to wonder: why is mystery music so—well, mysterious? This led me, on the one hand, to consider the historical encounters that brought together jazz, blues, and other musical genres/art forms with mystery genres, whether film or writing. On the other hand, it brought me toward a consideration of how musical genres, forms, and sounds travel, leaving behind clues in the process. From there, I wondered further still: what is a clue, and how do we know?

Notes on Pairings: I’ve selected three (technically four) pairings that I feel illustrate the above points.

The first pairings—two online articles, which I treat as a unit—are both brief, selective reviews on the use of jazz in classic film scores and literature. The first is “Crime Jazz: How Miles Davis, Count Basie & Duke Ellington Created Soundtracks for Noir Films & TV” by writer Colin Marshall (2014) on Open Culture. The second is “The Long, Proud Tradition of Jazz-Infused Crime Novels” by novelist and comics writer Alex Segura (2019) on CrimeReads.

As one commenter points out, the films listed in the Open Culture article are not film noir, as the author claims. However, what I still find important and compelling about this piece is that it shows a specific process that made (some) mystery music what it is. It wasn’t because of anything inherently mysterious in the music. Rather, it was because, over time, people became accustomed to encountering certain (musical) sounds in connection with certain narrative genres. This was literally true in film, where jazz and blues sometimes comprised the soundtrack for the onscreen action. But it was also metaphorically true for literature, where music (and its performance venues or personas) took center-stage as plot devices or as characters.

The second pairing is a short-form video documentary unraveling the musical mystery of Britney Spears’ 2003 Toxic. “How Bollywood Gave Britney Spears Her Greatest Hit” (Insider, March 2020, 07:33), by Meredith Geaghan-Breiner and Dilan Garcia Lopez, explains why the unlikely pairing of two musical sounds—Bollywood orchestral strings and Surf Rock—works as seamlessly as it does. It turns out that this is because of a historical connection between the two: the Surf Rock guitar riff, made famous by the James Bond theme song, actually takes its inspiration from music of the Indian Subcontinent.

The third pairing is an article by historian Carlo Ginzburg (with introduction by Anna Davin), “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method” (1980). Like all of Ginzburg’s work, the article is concerned with:

“how people see the world, how knowledge is acquired and organized, the frameworks into which they fit information, beliefs, or observations, and the social structure which contains, influences and is influenced by these aspects of knowledge” (Anna Davin, Introduction, 5).

In the article, Ginzburg traces out how the excitement at discovering clues—not specific clues, but the very concept of clues themselves—was driven by entertainment genres and 19th-century celebrity intellectuals. The article begins by exploring historical cases of art forgery, which were solved precisely because one investigator paid attention to the things (the clues) that others—even the original artists—didn’t. Cracking these cases became a form of public entertainment that drove the later popularity of classic detective mystery genres—perhaps made most famous by the semi-fictional character of Sherlock Holmes — and, later still, in the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis. This, according to Ginzburg, paved the way for the modern scientific method.

As I see it, this is important for two reasons: first, it reminds us that that the idea of clues itself has a history. Second, it shows that interpretation of some perceivable phenomenon as clues always requires a different, non-perceivable framework to give it its meaning. This is true whether the clues are a figure’s ears in a painting (potential clues for the art historian to reveal a forgery), or an individual’s bodily state (paralysis and loss of vision, hearing, and speech as potential clues for the psychoanalyst to interpret not only as signs of a specific woman’s “hysteria,” but of “hysteria” as a psychological affliction generally). For Ginzburg, the link between these perceivable and the non-perceivable things is created through individuals’ conjectures about the world.

In other words, the idea of the clue is not universal or timeless, even though it builds on the older, more widespread act of making conjectures as a method for understanding the world. Further, this is a reminder that, for all its methodological power, the idea of the clue draws as much on fiction and the celebrity status of its popularizers as it does on its reliability or validity.

Josh Babcock is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Chicago who is enjoying listening to more music these days.


Geaghan-Breiner, Meredith and Lopez, Dilan Garcia (2020) “How Bollywood Gave Britney Spears Her Greatest Hit.” Insider (video).

Ginzburg, Carlo (1980) “Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method.” With an introduction by Anna Davin. History Workshop 9: 5–36.

Marshall, Colin (2014) “Crime Jazz: How Miles Davis, Count Basie & Duke Ellington Created Soundtracks for Noir Films & TV.” Open Culture (online).

Segura, Alex (2014) “The Long, Proud Tradition of Jazz-Infused Crime Novels.” CrimeReads (online).

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay.

A listening exchange series. Currently taking a pause.