What Inspired Mrs. Robinson and Other Songs in The Graduate?

There must be a thesis on this somewhere: How did Simon & Garfunkle’s soundtrack to The Graduate come to be what it became? I don’t mean the administrative part. I mean: what was the specific assignment S&G received? What were the constraints? And more interestingly, how did S&G translate this assignment into the masterpiece they created?

Equally fascinating, and more pertinent to this blog, are the audience’s responses to the music. Consider my Discontinuities: Love, Art, Mind project, which encompasses amongst other things Learning from Stories. We seek to understand how learners can respond self-constructively to art. “How” here is both practical (how can highly motivated learners, i.e., “effectant” people learn from stories?) and factual (what happens in their mind/brains when they learn from art?).

In general, these days at least, we learn very little from stories. This is partly due to “information overload” and busyness preventing us from spending much time on any particular work of art. “Next!” Moreover, we need to be cognitively lazy. The brain is a huge consumer of calories, which were precious resources not too long ago, and still are in some quarters. The brain is somewhat plastic, but it and the virtual machines layered upon it have tremendous inertia.

Art is even more difficult to learn from than expository and practical knowledge resources. For many forms of learning, we need to ask questions… Knowing which questions are most fruitful for a given work, in one’s circumstances, is hard! Bonne chance!

Back to the soundtrack…

  • “Mrs. Robinson” itself may seem predictably related to the Mrs. Robinson character. But this is a fluency error of the type I discussed in chapter 3 of Cognitive Productivity under the header, “Illusions of comprehension”. Information might make sense when it is fresh in our minds. But the fact that we can hardly reconstruct it points to the fact that we didn’t really understand it.
  • “At the Zoo” is also somewhat related to the content of the film. But the relation, though quite pleasant, is very vague.

Yet when we process these songs we can easily be transported to the film.

  • “Scarborough Fair/Canticle” perhaps achieves this mnemonic effect more vividly than any other song in the film, partly because it was repeated so many times throughout it. I suspect it also has to do with the music itself being very distinctive and filled with harmonies. Its repetition structure gives an impression of perturbance, and hence tertiary emotion. (A possibility I alluded to at AISB-2017.)

These questions and themes will echo throughout Discontinuities: Love, Art, Mind.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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