Here is our unabridged interview with Daniel J. Levitin, the best-selling neuroscientist and former sound engineer and session player whose best-selling book, This is Your Brain on Music, has become one of the definitive texts on understanding our relationship to music. Levitin is slated to appear at Festival of the Arts Boca on Monday, March 10, in a conversation with conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos.
I don’t know of anyone else who has worked so extensively on both the inside of the music business, as a musician and producer, and on the outside as an academic writing about it. When you were in your twenties, which of these did you think would be your career focus?
In my 20s, I thought it would be the music business. And halfway through my 30s, I began to wonder if the music business was going to be around very long. And so I didn’t really stop making music or producing records; I just found that after I went back to school, my studies took up more and more of your time.
Your Festival of the Arts program is titled “Your Brain on Music,” which is of course the name of your best-selling book. What will be the structure of your lecture/performance?
It’s going to be improvised. The maestro [Kitsopoulos] and I are going to have a conversation about music, and I have no idea how it will go. Well, I know how it’s going to go: It’s going to go well. I don’t know where it’s going to go. I’m curious to know what he does to try and evoke emotions from musicians and how he tries to get into the heads of composers to figure out what they intended. The thing is, if you just follow the notes on the page exactly as they’re written, you end up with a very unsatisfying musical performance. It would be like acting in a monotone voice. You expect an actor to use intonation, and you expect musicians to make certain decisions in order to realize the emotional impact that was intended by the composer. So I’d like to know how he does what he does, and I can talk a little bit about what I think is going on in the brain when players play and composers write and listeners listen.
How far back does music stretch, evolutionarily? Can you trace back the first known instance of organized sound?
One thing we have is that the oldest human-made artifacts that are found in burial sites and other excavation sites are musical instruments. And we’ve even found musical instruments that appear to predate humans and are associated with Neanderthals. It goes back 50,000 years.
Your book is subtitled “The Science of a Human Obsession.” What do you mean by “obsession” in your view?
To somebody who doesn’t get music – to the proverbial martian who comes down and is not musical and sees us engaging with music – it does seem to be an obsession. We spend a lot of money on it. We spend a lot of time surrounded by it. It’s in more places than the average person realizes. It’s piped into shopping malls and bus stations and elevators. It accompanies ads; it’s on TV in the background, it’s in movies in the background … so just trying to be objective about it, it seems like we are a particularly musical species, and calling it an obsession I think is not far off the mark if you’re trying to be objective. I don’t mean it in a pejorative sense.
Why do some songs get stuck in our heads?
We don’t really know. I think it’s because for most of our history as human beings, we didn’t have written language. Writing is only 5,000 years old. So for roughly 45,000 years, human beings were doing what they do but needed some way of preserving information, and I think music became one of the chief ways that they did that. Because the mutually reinforcing cues of rhythm and meter and rhyme constrain the words that can fit. So it would easier to memorize a song that had important information in it, like where to get your water, what plants are edible, things of that nature. The fact is, we still use music to encode information. Most children learn the alphabet from a song. And they learn to count from a song. And they learn their body parts – you put your right foot in, you put your right foot out. So even today, in a hyper-literate culture, preliterate humans, that is children of a certain age, are still learning information through song. I think songs get stuck in your head because they evolved to do so.
Do you hope that by reading your books and listening to your presentations, that people will change the way they listen to music?
I don’t know that I hope they change the way they listen to music, but I’ve heard a lot of people say that after reading the book or hearing a talk by me or my colleagues, that they feel a deeper connection to music, and they feel a sense of appreciation for understanding a little bit about how it works. Without demystifying it, they feel that things start to fall into place and make sense about their relationship to music.
If you understand that Rembrandt was the first painter to play around with shadows and light the way that he did, and that what you’re looking at in Rembrandt is the beginning of something new, it’s entirely different than if you treat Rembrandt as a contemporary painter. There’s a bunch of 20-year-olds who have been listening to the Beatles since they were little kids. And they don’t understand why the Beatles were innovative. But if you take them through the history of pop music, they can see that a lot of things we take for granted now were introduced or popularized by the Beatles. So I think there’s a role for writing, which is to contextualize, and hopefully when it’s really good, to point out things you didn’t notice before.
You followed This is Your Brain on Music with The World in Six Songs, quite an intriguing title. What are those six songs, and why did you pick them? Was it difficult to whittle it down to six?
They’re six forms of music. After a lot of research, I came to believe there are six kinds of music—six ways in which humans use music—that have been important throughout history. One of them is that music was used to encode knowledge. Another example is bonding. We use music for social bonding; we have team anthems for our sporting team, and whenever there is a political movement or rally, there’s a political song playing, and it serves to bind people together in a common and united front. Religious groups have been doing this for millennia. Those are two of the six different forms.
Most of your industry experience seems to have been in the rock world. Many people have perhaps a snobbish perception that classical and jazz have more intellectual validity than rock music, that babies should be listening to Mozart in the womb, and not the Sex Pistols, for instance. Do you have any thoughts on that?
It is just snobbishness. There’s no experimental evidence that listening to one kind of music versus another makes you smarter or more well-adjusted. There’s a little bit of evidence that suggests listening to music with violent lyrics, like gangsta rap, alongside violent video games and violent television programming, leads to more aggressive behavior. But it’s not the genre of the music per se. There’s certainly heavy metal and rap music that’s not talking about killing people or maiming them. So there’s nothing about the canonical three chords of rock and roll or the distorted guitars of heavy metal that are going to corrupt the youth of America. In fact, a friend of mine taught a course at McGill called Bruckner and Heavy Metal. The thesis was that heavy metal has a lot more in common with classical music than you think, because they both borrow from the European child ballad tradition for their melodies and harmonies. The music that makes somebody’s emotions change is music that’s reached them.
Has all of this knowledge that you’ve accrued about music and the mind affected your casual listening habits?
No. If anything it’s made me more appreciative of how difficult it is for everything to really come together. It’s given me a deeper emotional connection to the music that I like. I have a better ability now in music to say, well, this is the technique that’s being used, and to marvel at a well-applied technique. So it gives me a whole other repertoire of things to appreciate. When somebody makes a musical move and I can recognize it and go, wow, that was really clever of them to do that right then and right there, that enhances the experience. But I can turn it off and just listen and not be analytical.
Would you like to speak about The Organized Mind, your forthcoming book?
The Organized Mind’s subtitle is “Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.” And the point of the book is to talk about the brain works, the cognitive neuroscience of attention, and to talk about certain principles by which the brain organizes the world that if we understand them better, we can organize our physical spaces better. We can organize our decision-making better, if we can understand certain principles of how the brain is organized.
There have been a bunch of books recently about unplugging and solitude. Is one of your points that we’re bombarded with too much media?
Bombarded is a relative term. I think that the proliferation of media is great in that we’re in a golden age of media creativity, where musicians and filmmakers and storytellers of various kinds have unprecedented access to an audience. And conversely the audience has unprecedented access to a very wide variety of artistic expression. That can only be good. The problem is that we’re led to believe that we need to keep up with every single one of them, that multitasking makes us efficient. And there are a number of studies, some of them by Clifford Nass of Stanford, showing that multitaskers really believe they’re getting a lot done, that they’re superhumans. But by every measure, they’re getting much less done. And so when you talk about unplugging, human attention has evolved over tens of thousands of years to allow us to focus on things for extended periods of time. That’s how you got things like the pyramids and great cities and rockets to the moon and penicillin. If your attention is fragmented into little 15- or 20-second increments, you’re not going to get those kinds of things done.
Are there still frontiers to be charted in music cognition?
Absolutely. There’s plenty of to do, and we need all the help we can get. It’s a young field with a lot of unanswered questions.