Music and the Mind: An Interview with Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin

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 best-sellers: “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.

BW: 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.

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