Music and the Mind: An Interview with Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


Daniel Levitin’s life has been a strange one. Perhaps that’s one reason why it’s so entertaining to read his books, which are mixtures of cutting-edge neuroscience and good-natured storytelling. A studio musician and engineer, Levitin played with musicians from the Grateful Dead to Chris Isaak before earning a Ph.D. and writing two bestsellers: “This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession” and “The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature,” a meditation on the different types of songs that have moved people throughout human history. Music, according to Levitin, has served many evolutionary purposes. He recently spoke with us from his office at McGill University, where he serves as the James McGill Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience.

Brain World: So, how did you go from playing guitar with Blue Oyster Cult to becoming a preeminent neuroscientist?

Daniel Levitin: When I was working with Blue Oyster Cult in San Francisco, my hobby was going to Stanford University and sitting in on neuroscience classes. I went with Sandy Perlman, who is a music producer and was the primary lyricist for Blue Oyster Cult throughout their career. At some point, I became disillusioned with the music industry — not with music — so I spent more time sitting in on classes and less time in the studio.

BW: Attending neuroscience classes for kicks is not something typically associated with rock and roll.

DL: Well, maybe not, but everybody has hobbies. Jimmy Page has a great interest in the occult. Rosanne Cash is a superb fiction writer. People think about rock music as all about feel and not about smarts, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

BW:  Was your initial interest in music and the brain?

DL: No, not at all. At the time, there was no neuroscience department; psychology was where you studied the brain. I didn’t plan on studying music and the brain — I didn’t even know you could! Although, to his credit, Howard Gardner introduced the idea of music as an intelligence in 1983.

How has your research changed your view of music?

DL: Well, there’s now quite a bit of evidence that suggests music may have preceded language. It’s controversial. But that is one thing that surprised me.

BW: In “Six Songs,” you theorize that the creative capacity for music evolved with brain structure. Do you think it’s the same structure that facilitates language?

DL: Well, there’s a number of studies converging on the idea that there are some shared neural resources for music and language, but also some distinct ones. And in those cases where there’s a distinct neural resource for music, it’s from a part of the brain that’s biogenetically older, which suggests that music was there first.

BW: Do you include phenomena like whale and bird songs in your neural definition of music?

DL: That’s been a very controversial issue within biology and neuroscience. Just because it sounds like music to us, doesn’t mean it’s music. It’s very easy to anthropomorphize animal behaviors. A good example is: If you see a dog rolling on the grass, it looks like he’s having the time of his life and is smiling. It reminds you of being a kid and rolling in the grass because you’re happy — and you assume he’s happy. But for one thing, dogs don’t smile. They’ve been bred to look like they’re smiling. And the evidence is that he’s rolling in the grass because he’s found something that smells like a dead animal, and he’s trying to spread it over his coat so the other dogs think he’s a fierce warrior.

In the case of music, animal species seem to be using it in a different way than we do. Humans typically engage in musical activity — listening and performing — for no reason other than the pleasure of it. Animals tend to engage in the behaviors we interpret as musical for communication. Their music functions in lieu of a language.

BW: But in your book, you talk about how throughout evolution, humans have used music to communicate wisdom from generation to generation. So the fact that it’s pleasurable may have made it popular, but perhaps the pleasure is a side effect and communication is music’s primary function.

DL: I think so; I think its communicative powers are why it has persisted for tens of thousands of years. But we tend to use music to communicate emotional ideas, not for knowledge transmission. And there’s some of that in the animal kingdom. It’s a complicated question.

BW: There is an emphasis on evolution in “Six Songs.” Have you always thought of things in an evolutionary context?

DL: My advisor in college, Roger Shepard, is a proponent of evolutionary psychology and taught me to think of things in terms of their evolutionary role. But the average American does not believe in evolution. [A recent Gallup poll stated only 39 percent of Americans believe in evolution.] I remember the director of the National Institutes of Health asking me if I could teach the average person one thing, what would it be?” Well, I think the first thing I’d want to do is talk about the complexity of the brain and how it works. The second thing I’d want to do is talk about the theory of evolution, and how complex things can arise from simpler things. So I thought, this is worth doing, to use examples of music to build up this idea that brains evolve.

BW: Did you have any trouble identifying the six types of songs?

DL: I have listened to songs from all over the world, and all eras. I ended up with six categories, and the labels probably leaned on poetic license a bit. For example, “Friendship” is a broad category for social bonding, friendship, and social action — even if that action is a war. In the military, when your unit is singing and marching together, it’s not friendly to the other side, but it’s friendly to the people next to you, because you’re willing to take a bullet for them.

BW: Another surprising designation in the book is labeling gansta rap as comfort songs.

DL: So much of music is about surprise and defying expectations. I tried to mimic that quality in the writing as best I could, to surprise the reader. But I do think gangsta rap is a kind of solidarity song: We grew up in this situtation; this is the way the world treats us. It’s easiest to see in Queen Latifah or other women hip-hop artists. The urban African-American woman is disenfranchised and doesn’t have a voice.

BW: So are songs of teenage rebellion and alienation, like punk rock, also comfort songs?

DL: Absolutely. I put them in “Friendship” because it’s about social bonding, but the categories aren’t supposed to be rigid — although I think social bonding engages different neural circuits than “Comfort.” There’s an argument, not yet proven, that songs that we find comforting release prolactin, and the songs of social bonding release oxytocin. But the same song can trigger the release of two different chemicals.

BW: In the book, you write about getting songs stuck in your head. When you see an fMRI of someone who has a song stuck in their head, is it similar in pattern to a person who is actually listening to the song?

DL: It is. In fact, it takes a really trained eye to distinguish an imagined song from a heard song. That’s one of the big findings in the cognitive neuroscience of music that has broader impact on the science in general. It tells you something about what memory is. Memory is perception. It’s the process of taking the series of neurons that were online and in a certain configuration during the original percept back in the same or similar configuration, so that you reel in the experience neurally.

BW: Are there other music-related findings that have had wide implications on neuroscience?

DL: Yes. The fact that we can recognize melodies in transposition gets to another fundamental property of memory, and music has made this case best. Melody is defined by particular notes with a particular relationship between them. But if you change all the notes but keep the relationship, the brain will still recognize the song instantaneously. So memory retains both the absolute features of a stimulus as well as relative ones, and neither way of encoding information seems to be more important than the other — the absolute and relative live side by side. This is a huge deal in understanding biogenetic development in brains, because most animals are processors only of absolute, not relative, information. To use a dog as an example again: I can line up three rubber toys and teach the dog to go for the largest one. But if I then add an even larger one, I can’t get the dog to generalize that he should always choose the largest. The notion of largest is impossible for the dog’s mind. It can only understand the particular.

BW: What is your opinion of studies that show musical training enhances performance in other areas of cognition, like mathematics?

DL: The difficulty so far is that no controlled studies have been done, only correlation studies. But that’s changing. Helen Neville at the University of Oregon has a multiyear project where she engaged kids in random musical assignments, or not. The early results suggest that the kids with lessons do better in a variety of school subjects that wouldn’t normally be thought of as pertaining to music. She also has a plausible mechanism for it: The training of a structure called the anterior cingulate, which is believed to be responsible for mediating attention. So the act of learning to play an instrument exercises attention networks perhaps not uniquely but more efficiently than other activities the child might engage in.


As I scientist, I’m not going to put on my white coat and say that public policy needs to require musical training until the evidence is in, and it’s not yet. But as a musician, I’m in favor of musical education. And as a human being, I agree with the Greeks that the measure of the level of sophistication in a society is in how many of us engage in artistic and leisure pursuits. I think that art is something that everybody should engage in.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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