FAQ   Search   Memberlist   Usergroups   Register   Profile   Log in to check your private messages   Log in 
“This Is Your Brain on Music”

Post new topic   Reply to topic    The Next Level Forum Index -> The Thinking Zone
  ::  Previous topic :: Next topic  
Author Message

PostPosted: Sun Dec 31, 2006 4:49 am    Post subject: “This Is Your Brain on Music” Reply with quote

Music of the Hemispheres
Daniel Levitin is the rare music scientist to have worked in the music business. “Pop musicians compose with timbre,” he said. “Pitch and harmony are becoming less important.”

Images from an experiment to locate the neural regions of the brain involved in listening to music. Daniel Levitin and another scientist scanned the brains of 13 people as they listened to scrambled and unscrambled versions of a tune.

“Listen to this,” Daniel Levitin said. “What is it?” He hit a button on his computer keyboard and out came a half-second clip of music. It was just two notes blasted on a raspy electric guitar, but I could immediately identify it: the opening lick to the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.”

Then he played another, even shorter snippet: a single chord struck once on piano. Again I could instantly figure out what it was: the first note in Elton John’s live version of “Benny and the Jets.”

Dr. Levitin beamed. “You hear only one note, and you already know who it is,” he said. “So what I want to know is: How we do this? Why are we so good at recognizing music?”

This is not merely some whoa-dude epiphany that a music fan might have while listening to a radio contest. Dr. Levitin has devoted his career to exploring this question. He is a cognitive psychologist who runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal, perhaps the world’s leading lab in probing why music has such an intense effect on us.

“By the age of 5 we are all musical experts, so this stuff is clearly wired really deeply into us,” said Dr. Levitin, an eerily youthful-looking 49, surrounded by the pianos, guitars and enormous 16-track mixers that make his lab look more like a recording studio.

This summer he published “This Is Your Brain on Music” (Dutton), a layperson’s guide to the emerging neuroscience of music. Dr. Levitin is an unusually deft interpreter, full of striking scientific trivia. For example we learn that babies begin life with synesthesia, the trippy confusion that makes people experience sounds as smells or tastes as colors. Or that the cerebellum, a part of the brain that helps govern movement, is also wired to the ears and produces some of our emotional responses to music. His experiments have even suggested that watching a musician perform affects brain chemistry differently from listening to a recording. (Note: I would have assumed this was 'known' within research psychology - it seems pretty intuitive and I do not consider myself musical?)

Dr. Levitin is singular among music scientists for actually having come out of the music industry. Before getting his Ph.D. he spent 15 years as a record producer, working with artists ranging from the Blue Öyster Cult to Chris Isaak. While still in graduate school he helped Stevie Wonder assemble a best-of collection; in 1992 Dr. Levitin’s sensitive ears detected that MCA Records had accidentally used third-generation backup tapes to produce seven Steely Dan CDs, and he embarrassed the label by disclosing it in Billboard magazine. He has earned nine gold and platinum albums, which he tucks in corners of his lab, office and basement at home. “They look a little scary when you put them all in one place, so I spread them around,” he said.

Martin Grant, the dean of science at McGill, compares Dr. Levitin’s split professional personality to that of Brian Greene, the pioneering string-theory scientist who also writes mass-market books. “Some people are good popularizers, and some are good scientists, but not usually both at once,” Dr. Grant said. “Dan’s actually cutting edge in his field.”

Scientifically, Dr. Levitin’s colleagues credit him for focusing attention on how music affects our emotions, turf that wasn’t often covered by previous generations of psychoacousticians, who studied narrower questions about how the brain perceives musical sounds. “The questions he asks are very very musical, very concerned with the fact that music is an art that we interact with, not just a bunch of noises,” said Rita Aiello, an adjunct professor in the department of psychology at New York University.

Ultimately, scientists say, his work offers a new way to unlock the mysteries of the brain: how memory works, how people with autism think, why our ancestors first picked up instruments and began to play, tens of thousands of years ago.

DR. LEVITIN originally became interested in producing in 1981, when his band — a punk outfit called the Mortals — went into the recording studio. None of the other members were interested in the process, so he made all the decisions behind the board. “I actually became a producer because I saw the producers getting all the babes,” he said. “They were stealing them from the guitarists.” He dropped out of college to work with alternative bands.

Producers, he noted, were able to notice impossibly fine gradations of quality in music. Many could identify by ear the type of amplifiers and recording tape used on an album.

“So I started wondering: How was the brain able to do this?” Dr. Levitin said. “What’s going on there, and why are some people better than others? And why is music such an emotional experience?” He began sitting in on neuroscience classes at Stanford University.

“Even back then, Dan was never satisfied with the simple answer,” said Howie Klein, a former president of Reprise and Sire Records. “He was always poking and prodding.”

By the ’90s Dr. Levitin was disenchanted with the music industry. “When they’re dropping Van Morrison and Elvis Costello because they don’t sell enough records,” he said, “I knew it was time to move on.” Academic friends persuaded him to pursue a science degree. They bet that he would have good intuitions on how to design music experiments.

They were right. Traditionally music psychologists relied on “simple melodies they’d written themselves,” Dr. Levitin said. What could that tell anyone about the true impact of powerful music? (Note: NO SHIT!)

For his first experiment he came up with an elegant concept: He stopped people on the street and asked them to sing, entirely from memory, one of their favorite hit songs. The results were astonishingly accurate.

Most people could hit the tempo of the original song within a four-percent margin of error, and two-thirds sang within a semitone of the original pitch, a level of accuracy that wouldn’t embarrass a pro.

“When you played the recording of them singing alongside the actual recording of the original song, it sounded like they were singing along,” Dr. Levitin said.

It was a remarkable feat. Most memories degrade and distort with time; why would pop music memories be so sharply encoded? Perhaps because music triggers the reward centers in our brains. In a study published last year Dr. Levitin and group of neuroscientists mapped out precisely how.

Observing 13 subjects who listened to classical music while in an M.R.I. machine, the scientists found a cascade of brain-chemical activity. First the music triggered the forebrain, as it analyzed the structure and meaning of the tune. Then the nucleus accumbus and ventral tegmental area activated to release dopamine, a chemical that triggers the brain’s sense of reward.

The cerebellum, an area normally associated with physical movement, reacted too, responding to what Dr. Levitin suspected was the brain’s predictions of where the song was going to go. As the brain internalizes the tempo, rhythm and emotional peaks of a song, the cerebellum begins reacting every time the song produces tension (that is, subtle deviations from its normal melody or tempo).

“When we saw all this activity going on precisely in sync, in this order, we knew we had the smoking gun,” he said. “We’ve always known that music is good for improving your mood. But this showed precisely how it happens.”

The subtlest reason that pop music is so flavorful to our brains is that it relies so strongly on timbre. Timbre is a peculiar blend of tones in any sound; it is why a tuba sounds so different from a flute even when they are playing the same melody in the same key. Popular performers or groups, Dr. Levitin argued, are pleasing not because of any particular virtuosity, but because they create an overall timbre that remains consistent from song to song. That quality explains why, for example, I could identify even a single note of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”

Nobody else’s piano sounds quite like that,” he said, referring to Mr. John. “Pop musicians compose with timbre. Pitch and harmony are becoming less important.”

Dr. Levitin dragged me over to a lab computer to show me what he was talking about. “Listen to this,” he said, and played an MP3. It was pretty awful: a poorly recorded, nasal-sounding British band performing, for some reason, a Spanish-themed ballad.

Dr. Levitin grinned. “That,” he said, “is the original demo tape of the Beatles. It was rejected by every record company. And you can see why. To you and me it sounds terrible. But George Martin heard this and thought, ‘Oh yeah, I can imagine a multibillion-dollar industry built on this.’

“Now that’s musical genius.”

THE largest audience that Dr. Levitin has performed in front of was 1,000 people, when he played backup saxophone for Mel Tormé. Years of being onstage piqued Dr. Levitin’s interest in another aspect of musical experience: watching bands perform. Does the brain experience a live performance differently from a recorded one?

To find out, he and Bradley Vines, a graduate student, devised an interesting experiment. They took two clarinet performances and played them for three groups of listeners: one that heard audio only; one that saw a video only; and one that had audio and video. As each group listened, participants used a slider to indicate how their level of tension was rising or falling.

One rapid, complex passage caused tension in all groups, but less in the one watching and listening simultaneously. Why? Possibly, Dr. Levitin said, because of the performer’s body language: the clarinetist appeared to be relaxed even during that rapid-fire passage, and the audience picked up on his visual cues. The reverse was also true: when the clarinetist played in a subdued way but appeared animated, the people with only video felt more tension than those with only audio.

In another, similar experiment the clarinetist fell silent for a few bars. This time the viewers watching the video maintained a higher level of excitement because they could see that he was gearing up to launch into a new passage. The audio-only listeners had no such visual cues, and they regarded the silence as much less exciting.

This spring Dr. Levitin began an even more involved experiment to determine how much emotion is conveyed by live performers. In April he took participants in a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert — the conductor Keith Lockhart, five of the musicians and 15 audience members — and wired them with sensors to measure their state of arousal, including heart rate, body movements and muscle tension.

At one point during the performance Mr. Lockhart swung his wrist with such force that a sensor attached to his cuff went flying off. Dr. Levitin’s team tried to reattach it with duct tape, until the conductor objected — “Did you just put duct tape on an Armani?” he asked — and lighter surgical tape was used instead.

The point of the experiment is to determine whether the conductor creates noticeable changes in the emotional tenor of the performance. Dr. Levitin says he suspects there’s a domino effect: the conductor becomes particularly animated, transmits this to the orchestra and then to the audience, in a matter of seconds. Mr. Lockhart is skeptical. “As a conductor,” he said, “I’m a causatory force for music, but I’m not a causatory force for emotion.” But Dr. Levitin is still crunching the data.

“It might not turn out to be like that,” he said, “But wouldn’t it be cool if it did?”

Dr. Levitin’s work has occasionally undermined some cherished beliefs about music. For example recent years have seen an explosion of “Baby Mozart” videos and toys, based on the idea — popular since the ’80s — that musical and mathematical ability are inherently linked.

But Dr. Levitin argued that this could not be true, based on his study of people with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that leaves people with low intelligence. Their peak mental capacities are typically those of young child, with no ability to calculate quantities. Dr. Levitin once asked a woman with Williams to hold up her hand for five seconds; she left it in the air for a minute and a half. “No concept of time at all,” he said, “and definitely no math.”

Yet people with Williams possess unusually high levels of musical ability. One Williams boy Dr. Levitin met was so poorly coordinated he could not open the case to his clarinet. But once he was holding the instrument, his coordination problems vanished, and he could play fluidly. Music cannot be indispensably correlated with math, Dr. Levitin noted, if Williams people can play music. He is now working on a study that compares autistics — some of whom have excellent mathematical ability, but little musical ability — to people with Williams; in the long run, he said, he thinks it could help shed light on why autistic brains develop so differently.

Not all of Dr. Levitin’s idea have been easily accepted. He argues, for example, that music is an evolutionary adaptation: something that men developed as a way to demonstrate reproductive fitness. (Before you laugh, consider the sex lives of today’s male rock stars.) Music also helped social groups cohere. “Music has got to be useful for survival, or we would have gotten rid of it years ago,” he said.

But Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard known for his defense of evolutionary psychology, has publicly disparaged this idea. Dr. Pinker has called music “auditory cheesecake,” something pleasant but not evolutionarily nutritious. If it is a sexual signal for reproduction, then why, Dr. Pinker asked, does “a 60-year-old woman enjoy listening to classical music when she’s alone at home?” Dr. Levitin wrote an entire chapter refuting Dr. Pinker’s arguments; when I asked Dr. Pinker about Dr. Levitin’s book he said he hadn’t read it.

Nonetheless Dr. Levitin plugs on, and sometimes still plugs in. He continues to perform music, doing several gigs a year with Diminished Faculties, a ragtag band composed entirely of professors and students at McGill. On a recent December afternoon members assembled in a campus ballroom to do a sound check for their performance that evening at a holiday party. Playing a blue Stratocaster, Dr. Levitin crooned the Chris Isaak song “Wicked Game.” “I’m not a great guitarist, and I’m not a great singer,” he said.

But he is not bad, either, and still has those producer’s ears. When “Wicked Game” ended, the bass player began noodling idly, playing the first few notes of a song that seemed instantly familiar to all the younger students gathered. “That’s Nirvana, right?” Dr. Levitin said, cocking his head and squinting. “ ‘Come As You Are.’ I love that song.”

We have not heard the last of this guy. He is cool, smart and 'been there, done that.' How many of his colleagues have ever been to anything approaching ONE Steely Dan concert? Single digits is my guess.

There will be some 'painful realignments' among researchers at elite universities as they ponder someone in their midst who is working too hard! Might make them look bad (lapse in ethical responsibility?)

My prediction? Harvard & Co. mainstream 'science' like Pinker et. al. will be discredited and quickly irrelevant in the next year or so. Just as repugnant, self-centered and egotistical as the fundamentalists they rail against, while seeming to have little interest in the pursuit of knowledge, at least if not for thier personal recognition.

I cannot believe the rudimentary basis of 'experiments' that were the extent of the research - wonder what other areas of research would offer similar 'grand canyon' style opportunities? This sounds like they literally did nothing, simply because they could not 'hear' the subtle differencies and because they KNOW EVERYTHING or else they would not be at Harvard they dismiss even the suggestion that 'maybe you should use a tune people know?'

It certainly gives me no pause on my inquiries into the lightyear and special relativity. And more proof that the true breakthrough in any field of study will always be by the person who doesn't have any loyalty or investment in 'the way things are' because they don't care about hurting someone's feelings, nor should they. The people in the positions to conduct this research are obviously there BECAUSE they would be protecting the status quo, churn out a bunch of paper, get some grants and make everyone look good but 'DON'T DISCOVER ANYTHING! (or you will be fired!)'
Back to top

Joined: 15 Sep 2006
Posts: 840
Location: minime-rica

PostPosted: Sun Dec 31, 2006 7:50 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

seems to me that music is in some way a parallel with comedy and humour..all these things have something to offer in response to the occasionally unpredictable nature of life - artificial constructs in which to experience places, sensations and emotions, all without physical, or time location, being a factor - and in a passive yet involving way

or put another way, in the extreme they can allow us to master situations or feelings so devastating that we can only really survive them in a somewhat ironic or abstract manifestation...if you take that as a given, then the aural nature of music is as powerful (in the mind) as the real world itself, music is something you 'give in' to, like going to see a horror film, you submit yourself to the encounter, and i don't think that realisation is ever entirely out of mind - which allows opportunity for the full spectrum of possible reaction to be exploitated by the composer or artist - there's a submission of power (in the abstract) to them - paradoxically however, this is also empowering to the listener...and the flipside of this is that music can also deliver almost unbearable beauty too

and of course, both music and comedic entertainment can be misappropriated and used as systems of control...this raises two issues - firstly, that there must be some deeper aspect to these 'cheesecakes' (beneath the biscuit ?), and that there must also be some greater significance for the mind which is not being acknowledged in mainstream science...and secondly, for these things to be 'made bad' [mind killers], they must have some inherent potential to 'be good' [mind expanders/evolvers]

some music captures a moment (our moment as listener), which we relive when we listen to that same track again...then of course there's the context, most music has a 'correct' situation in which to be heard - so combine these two factors and hey presto, you've got an instaneous link to some part of the brain, even as Dr. Levitin says from one solitary note (or emotional 'tag')

so, given that music can become a mental picture, and with there being some consistency to the broader context in which we place it, then even a track you've never heard before - a completely original composition, can take you to a place/time you've been (or one you've never experienced) - by association

Idea so music evolves/has evolved into an aural-sensa-pictoral-language Question

a composition might take you in some abstract way, to an emotional landscape in a vague or an otherwise not-in-your-previous-experience manner - but by the association of the aural-sensa-pictoral-language of the mind, we can via this common shared 'a-s-p-l' thing, draw the image or meaning, thus experiencing the unexperienced, and evolving this shared language into new forms...and a broader mind horizon

or something

layer lyrics on top of that, and it could start to get complicated Wink

i think Dr. Levitin is definitely on to something profound, it ain't no cheesecake, it's every damn edible thing on this earth. and more

*sorry, i'm a total edit junkie

Last edited by Nat on Mon Jan 01, 2007 8:27 am; edited 4 times in total
Back to top
View user's profile Send private message

PostPosted: Sun Dec 31, 2006 8:40 pm    Post subject: There is a sucker born every minute... Reply with quote

Firstly - you are a hell of a lot smarter than you look in your avatar. I guess you should never judge a soul by its avatar?

avatar |?av??tär|

noun chiefly Hinduism

a manifestation of a deity or released soul in bodily form on earth; an incarnate divine teacher.
• an incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea : he set himself up as a new avatar of Arab radicalism.
• Computing a movable icon representing a person in cyberspace or virtual reality graphics.

ORIGIN from Sanskrit avat?ra ‘descent,’ from ava ‘down’ + tar- ‘to cross.’

A lot of what this article talks about I have known for years just from my music teacher in junior high and high school. Some of the statements and corresponding ignorance surprised me.

Matt wrote:

firstly, that there must be some deeper aspect to these 'cheesecakes',

and that there must also be some greater significance to the mind which is not being acknowledged in mainstream science...

for these things to be 'made bad', they must have some inherent potential to 'be good'

Something bad | Something good (Nothing is ever what it seems to appear)

That is the fundamental underlying basic principle, I believe, for the endless examples of things in this world that make no sense yet we continue to do things in that way - such as:

1. Alcohol is Legal | Pot is Not

Booze is THE MOST HARMFUL substance that one could choose to use as a substance for any reason or benefit. That is precisely why it is LEGAL, when the drugs that would expand mind-ful awareness and consciousness, thereby becoming more productive and easier society to govern, are NOT LEGAL for those reasons.

If we were really supposed to be making progress in this world, instead of pretending to want to make progress while controlling both sides of the same coin with the odds always in favor of the BAD luck and NO progress whatsoever, then at some point people must realize that. But they are also up against the psyop intelligence designed for maximum trickery, where we end up confusing our selves after a while, doing the day to day trickery for them on our own.

2. You can be sure that the powers in control know about all of this and part if the function this article serves is to reintroduce a new round of 'ignorance training' to make it seem like they are brand new discoveries.

And they are brand new to anyone who is just getting to be old enough to understand. Thats what has bothered me since I was 12 years old and helped with a summer production of "My Fair Lady" with the song "There's a sucker born every minute!" I spent the summer driving myself crazy wanting to know why those suckers didn't learn from the people who got suckered so they wouldn't get suckered in the same way?

3. Some things have to be learned the hard way. | Only if we believe that.

The friends I have that I do not discuss this with are all of the same bellief, that nothing makes any sense so WTF and they are able to somehow turn off that side of their awareness and consciousness. As have always described my self as a blessing and a curse, I have never been able to 'turn it off' either by want or need, it just hums along. Only now that I am tuned in and not beating myself up about it all the time have I been able to embrace all that I see that makes no sense and thereby make sense out of it.

Having discovered this forum has been a tremendous benefit because just to find other people that understand, and don't need an explanation for 'why I care about the lightyear anomoly' and cannot just ignore it when my intuition is grinding through the base of my skull telling me I am very close, almost there, I have to keep following my nose.

Thanks again, Matt - really enjoying these exchanges with you. I will be back later, gotta go follow my nose again for now!@
Back to top

Joined: 17 Sep 2006
Posts: 489
Location: A Wonderful World

PostPosted: Mon Jan 01, 2007 6:13 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

DrewTerry. Great post again man. You too Matt.
To hear that you 2 are enjoying your "post "conversations makes me happy.
DrewTerry and Matt.
You guys should not forget that there are us out here(simpler dudes that are bewildered with your research and writings),that read your posts and are blown away!
It can make it a little intimidating for me to make a post sometimes because you legends set the bar at a reasonble height.
But thats changing.Because of you two and this website.
Its a credit to you guys in the way you can open my mind, expand on my own thoughts,nullify a lot of bullshit and generally just educate me.
Back to top
View user's profile Send private message
Display posts from previous:   
Post new topic   Reply to topic    The Next Level Forum Index -> The Thinking Zone All times are GMT - 5 Hours
Page 1 of 1

Jump to:  
You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot vote in polls in this forum

Powered by phpBB © 2001, 2005 phpBB Group

Theme xand created by spleen.