Understanding the Musical Brain

Daniel Levitin ’79 is helping people everywhere understand how fundamental music is to human existence.
By 
Daniel Levitin '79
Daniel Levitin '79
Joey Cobbs

Musician, neuroscientist, author, and educator Daniel Levitin has one of the most diverse résumés of just about any Berklee alumnus you could name.

He started his professional music career as a performer playing guitar and bass with various groups—including the California punk band the Mortals. For a decade, he worked in various capacities, from session musician to recording engineer to record producer to amplifier modifier, and contributed to recordings by the Grateful Dead, Santana, Blue öyster Cult, Joe Satriani, Chris Isaak, Narada Michael Walden, and others.

Toward the late 1980s, Levitin shifted his focus and traded the stage and studio for the science lab and completion of his college studies, which were left undone previously. He earned his bachelor’s degree in cognitive science and psychology from Stanford University in 1992 and, later, an M.S. and Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Oregon. Music, however, is a thread that runs through everything Levitin has done (his doctoral studies explored perfect pitch in expert and nonexpert populations).

He’s been a writer throughout all phases of his career penning articles appearing in a range of publications from Billboard and Audio to refereed scientific journals. He gained wide recognition in 2006 for his book This Is Your Brain on Music. In it, Levitin provides a scientific exploration of how music affects humans in language nonscientists can understand. The book spent more than a year on the New York Times best-seller list and has been translated into 19 languages.

In his 2008 follow up, The World in Six Songs, he makes the point that music is far more than entertainment. Levitin makes a case that songs falling into six general categories (friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion, and love) shaped the history and evolution of human civilization. This book, too, quickly found its way onto the best-seller lists. Levitin’s latest tome, The Organized Mind, sheds light on why many of us feel our brains are being overwhelmed by data—the downside of life in the information age. Levitin states the problem: attention is a limited capacity resource, and then offers suggestions for organizing our minds and our lives to maximize our cranial resources. While the book is primarily nonmusical, Levitin couldn’t resist mentions of music and musicians throughout.

A good portion of Levitin’s career has been devoted to educating. Since 1991, he’s been teaching in various capacities at Stanford; the University of Oregon; University of California, Berkeley, Dartmouth College; and the University of Quebec at Montreal. In 2000, he became a professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where he has taught neuroscience as well as music theory and computer science. For years he has operated McGill’s laboratory for musical perception, hosting many international scholars from the field of psychology of music as well as numerous top musicians.

Levitin is currently on a one-year leave from his day-to-day teaching duties at McGill, although he is still running the lab and supervising the work of his doctoral and honors students. He’s amid an extensive book tour coordinated with the release of The Organized Mind in paperback. He will also apportion some of his time to serve as the dean of arts and humanities for Minerva, an innovative project undertaken by top educational figures to create a top-tier university experience for students while holding tuition costs to $10,000 per year.

Notwithstanding his substantial credentials as a scientist educator, and author, Levitin’s role as a musician is at his core. During our free-ranging interview at his San Francisco–area home, the conversation seamlessly transitioned from brain hormones produced through various musical activities to his favorite musicians spanning the spectrum from Miles Davis to Rodney Crowell to Clare and the Reasons. He also reached for his guitar frequently to make a point. Levitin’s work shedding light on the workings of the brain has reverberated across the world. And he’ll be the first to tell you there is still much more to discover.

During your younger years, college—at MIT, Stanford, and then Berklee—didn’t seem to hold your attention for more than a year at a time. Was this a restless period for you?

I flipped and flopped around a bit between the ages of 18 and 23. I couldn’t figure out what I was meant to do or where I fit. I liked studying and being around smart people, which is why I like colleges.

I left high school a year early to go to MIT, but I didn’t adjust well to being in an all-technical school. After a year, I went back home and worked as a reporter for the local newspaper. That was a great learning experience. An MIT teacher helped me get into Stanford, and I spent two quarters there and played in a band. At the time, Stanford was only offering classical music studies, so I went to Fresno State University where they had a great jazz band. I studied saxophone and picked up guitar during that year. The following year I went to Berklee as a performance major on guitar. I spent only a year at Berklee, but I would say that it was the best year of my life and the launching point for my career.

I had my hands on an instrument eight hours a day and instructors who knew how to get you from where you were to where you needed to be. The amount of musical growth I experienced was unparalleled. I had a gifted arranging teacher named Gary Solt who played guitar and trumpet. I later studied guitar privately with him. John Repucci was my harmony teacher and Billy Pierce was my listening and analysis teacher. Billy got a call in the middle of the year to go on the road with Art Blakey so we lost him. But how cool is that?

How did things unfold in your career as a professional musician?

After I left Berklee, I woodshedded for a year in Oregon where rent was cheap. I was offered a gig as the lead guitarist for the Alsea River Band, a country outfit on the Oregon Coast. I moved down to California after about six months in order to find a rock band to join. I auditioned for a group called the Mortals and was called back for three auditions. The third time they told me that I was asked back because I was the only one who had brought a little recorder to tape the tunes to work on later. They thought my guitar playing was melodic and wanted me to play bass because they wanted melodic bass lines. I felt that I’d worked for years to crawl my way up to the bottom as a guitarist, and here was an opportunity with a band I thought could go places, but they wanted me as a bass player.

I was 22 years old and had my sights set on one thing, and I felt it wasn’t working out. So I called my dad—who is a businessman—and described the situation. He told me to be flexible. He said, “So play bass. Wouldn’t you rather be a bass player in a great band than a guitar player in a not-so-great band?” It was about making music and being able to contribute creatively to some musical enterprise. So I bought a bass and a bass amp and joined the band.

How did you become a producer and recording engineer?

I had always been interested in electronics, that’s why I went to MIT. I had designed a kind of parametric equalizer when I was in high school before there were any on the market. I wrote about that in my admissions essay for MIT.

Regarding producing, when the Mortals went to the studio to record demos in 1981, the band members were getting high. They played OK when they were high, but I didn’t do that. The engineer kept coming in asking questions about how we wanted the drums to sound and what effects we wanted on this or that. The other members were checked out, so I engaged in the conversation. After a series of sessions with that engineer, he told me that I was functioning as the band’s producer. I didn’t know then that a producer was the person who represented the vision of the band and made decisions on the technical things the engineer was doing.

The demos by the Mortals got regular airplay on local radio, and we had a following. When that band broke up, I started figuring out my next move. My roommate, Jeff Kimball—who later became an independent filmmaker and vice president of the music department at Miramax—suggested that I produce bands. He had a practical argument and said that if I was in a band, all my bets were on that band. If I was producing four or five artists, I’d be spreading my bets. So I went out to listen to different bands and offered to produce demos for the ones I liked.

How did that evolve to where you got production credits on well-known albums?

I produced some demo tapes and a local record company called 415 hired me to work in A&R and as a staff arranger and producer with young bands. When we worked in a multiroom studio, we could hear what the other musicians were doing. Some of the artists I ran into were Joe Satriani and Chris Isaak. People developed an interest in the sound of the amp and cabinet combination that I had. It was a 1966 Fender Bassman that I had completely rebuilt and made tube substitutions. People began asking to use the amp on their recordings and asking me to tweak it to get a particular sound. Chris Isaak and Joe Satriani used that amp on their records. I met a producer named Sandy Pearlman—he produced Blue öyster Cult, the Clash, and others—who took me under his wing. I played guitar and sang background vocals on Blue öyster Cult’s Imaginos record. Sandy asked me to help produce the vocals and guitar solos. It was tremendously important training.

Through all of this, I was tinkering with electronics and reading science books and developing an interest in the brain. I had taken courses in the brain at MIT and Stanford, and maintained that interest while doing all these other things. Sandy and I used to drive to Stanford when we had time between sessions and sit in on lectures and then go to the bookstore and load up on brain books.

Your books reveal your ability to break down complex scientific concepts and language about the brain so that general readers can understand.

That comes out of teaching. Being a teacher is a great way to make sure you understand things. I am absolutely convinced that I walk away from my classes having learned more than the students. In teaching about music and the brain or memory and attention, I’ve encountered students who didn’t understand it and I’ve had to figure out better ways to explain things. If a person doesn’t understand what I’m teaching, I ask myself, “What piece are they missing?” To me it’s all about the pieces. For anyone to understand anything, you need to give them the right pieces.

You’ve written that some of our early musical impulses are very important. We see that some great artists—James Taylor for example— stay pretty close to their original trajectory throughout their careers while others—perhaps Sting—seem to always be searching. Is there a brain-chemical component behind these two scenarios?

Daniel Levitin ’79
Joey Cobbs

Yes, there is. Of the thousands of ways we humans differ from each other, one is our openness to immersing ourselves in new experiences. Miles Davis and Picasso were very open to new experiences. Others—maybe Lawrence Welk—not so much. It will manifest itself in different parts of life. You might have a friend who always wants to go with you to the same restaurant and maybe even orders the same dish each time you go out. Other friends may check Zagat for new restaurants and new dishes. It might be about travel, film, or new health trends.

So within that range, you’ll find artists who are more open to a new experience and others who value taking a concept and burnishing and polishing it until it’s just right. Look at Vincent van Gogh. He painted irises many times. It’s clear that he got in a mode where he wanted to get it right. Painters do this a lot and so do some musicians. James Taylor has worked to perfect what he does. He’s built himself a space—which he does step out of from time to time—but there is this sphere in which he is honing his craft. I wonder if he has an ideal song in his mind that he is always reaching for.

I think an artist like Sting is interested in staying challenged in a different way—although I would never say that Sting is more interested in mental challenge than James. It’s a different challenge to work inside a sphere and come up with something better each time versus the challenge of trying to create new spheres. Sting told me that he will often write himself into a corner. He writes the first part of a song and has no idea how to get out of it. Whether it’s harmonically, melodically, or lyrically, he gets stuck, and that to him is gold. If he can find his way out he knows the listener will be challenged and rewarded on repeated listenings. If he sticks with a I, V, I; or I, vi, ii, V, I, that’s not going to happen.

Many musicians have responded enthusiastically to your writing about music and the brain.

Something I never anticipated was that because I am the guy who wrote This Is Your Brain on Music, I’ve gotten to meet so many of my musical heroes, and in many cases, play with them. I’ve played with Victor Wooten, Tom Scott, Mike Stern, and Shelly Berg. I’ve done public shows with Rosanne Cash and Bobby McFerrin, and it’s been exceptionally rewarding for me. I’ve realized what makes a great musician by playing with these people. A factor that I hadn’t realized until I played with them is that it’s exactly what makes a great conversationalist: they listen to you, and you feel listened to.

I played with Gregg Field, who played drums with Count Basie’s band. As a guitarist, I was not used to having a drummer listen to me. He responds to every little nuance, and then you can give it back to him.

When we are talking, we can really only have a conversation with one or two other people. Three people talking at once is the maximum that the brain’s attentional system can handle. There is a processing or speed limit in the brain. That’s expressed as 120 bits per second. A normal conversation might be 50 bits, so you can just barely keep track of three people talking at once. With four or five people talking, you’re going to be losing content. It’s no wonder we’ve got wars. There are 7 billion people on the planet and you can only understand two other people at a time!

Is there an analogue to how many things in music we can follow at once?

Well, it doesn’t work that way. Because of harmony, rhythm, and filling in gaps with structure, you can follow a lot more. I don’t know what the limit is, but if you are in a five-piece combo, you can keep track of what everyone is doing.

I was talking to Kent Nagano, conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, about what conductors are really hearing and listening for. A good conductor is listening to all of the parts and can point to the third chair violinist and say, “You’re flat.” But people can’t do that in conversation.

Lyrics and melody are well explored in your writing. Has your research touched on the emotional power of harmony in music?

Oh sure. There’s a lot to say about that. First, the association that we have with major being happy and minor being sad is culturally induced, it’s not universal. In India, subSaharan African countries, or China, they don’t make that assumption. We’ve learned that in our culture because composers have reinforced it by having other sad elements coexist with minor chords and happy elements coexist with major.

Chord progressions are part of a system of expectation, of tension and release as the engine of music. The engine is based on the idea that we are going to follow some of what the composer is doing, but we want to be surprised every once in a while. Whether you know it or not, your brain is constantly predicting what’s going to happen next in music. There is a brain structure I’ve been studying for about 15 years called Brodmann Area 47. It’s a little sliver of tissue on either side of the temples. Its job is to figure out what’s going to happen next in the temporal sequence. It’s evolutionarily adaptive, so you will know what’s coming next and know whether you need to get out of the way or know that after a lion roars it might attack. Our life is based in temporal contingencies. This part of the brain that probably evolved for food, fear, and mating is working in music to find out what’s coming next.

Music has a tight structure. There are 12 notes in our system and more or less 24 chords that we use most of the time, 48 when you include diminished and augmented chords. There is a limited vocabulary of notes and chords that most people use. Through tens of thousands of hours of listening, we have internalized certain rules that music follows most of the time. Chord progressions can either lead us into a sense of complacency or excite us or challenge us. That’s what composers are playing around with in their work.

The idea of getting the tension and release to reward your expectations some of the time and surprise you the rest, is crucial for music to work. Suppose I write a simple melody that goes, do re mi do. What do I do next to hold your attention? I might go do re mi do, re mi fa re. The listener says, “Ah, I see what he’s doing,” and feels a connection to the composer. Now if I go do re mi do, re mi fa re, mi fa sol mi, I will start to lose you because it sounds too much like an exercise, it becomes predictable. But I can focus your attention and change your expectation by changing one note that implies a different harmony if I sing do re mi do, re mi fa re, mi fa sol and then drop to sol an octave lower. This makes it feel like I should resolve to the tonic. I may not, though; I might go the mediant or submediant. I can do any number of things there. So the composer can redirect your attention with chord progressions.

In The Organized Mind, you discuss what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the “flow state,” in which people experience their performance exceeding their normal abilities. How does one get there?

Whether you are an acrobat, a computer programmer, an athlete, or a painter, you don’t reach the flow state until you have mastered the fundamentals. In the flow state, you don’t have to think about what you are doing. Something takes over. You see this in a transcendent performance in any domain. An actor who disappears into a role isn’t thinking, “I’ll put my right foot here, and I’m standing at a bar, so I’d better put my hand on the counter now.” Maybe as they work things out there is that dialogue, but in the performance that moves you, they have to just be the character and that stuff has to be there for them. It’s a special brain state that we can see in brain scanners.

My colleague Charles Limb put jazz musicians into a brain scanner and asked them to improvise. You might think that improvising is hard and all kinds of brain activity is going to happen. What Limb found instead was that a very important part of the brain in the prefrontal cortex that we call the editor shuts down. It’s the finger-wagging part, and no blood goes there, it has to be offline for improvisation. To be in flow, that part of the brain can’t be telling you, “Don’t do that. It’s never going to work. You were never any good.”

It’s a fight for many musicians to learn how to turn those feelings off.

It’s important to realize that music is not a competition, it’s about communicating. We are hard on ourselves as musicians—harder than people are in other domains. If you go to a city park, you won’t find kids saying, “I’m no Michael Jordan, so I’m not going to play basketball.” Or if you’re with friends who ask your opinion on a certain topic, you don’t answer, “I’m no Martin Luther King, so I’m not going to talk.” But in music, we think, “I’m not good enough to play for you.” It goes back to learning. Victor Wooten makes the point that when little children are learning language, we don’t tell them they aren’t good enough to talk to adults yet. We talk to them right away, they make mistakes and they are adorable. The point isn’t to have a perfect little Shakespeare at three years old. It’s for this unique person to express what they are feeling in the world in their own way.

Have you had people writing music in your lab?

We had Sting write a song in the scanner and we are analyzing the data now. Brains are so different from one another that we generally study 10 or 20 people and then take averages in order to really understand what’s going on. If we study one brain, the findings might only be true for that brain: we can’t generalize. So studying Sting is a wonderful and rare opportunity, but we’d need to study more people like him—whatever that means.

What else is on the horizon for you?

I want to continue teaching, it’s very important for learning. The best learners teach and the best teachers learn. I am so impressed with the new generation of students that come through our doors. They’re so smart and will be running things in a while, so I want to help them in any way I can. I also want to keep playing with great musicians. I also hope to keep writing books as long as people are interested in what I have to say. I’ve got the next three or four books mapped out in my head.

What’s the subject of your next book?

I’m writing about critical thinking for the average person. The point will be to teach people how to avoid believing a whole lot of things that are not so. It will be all practical material. There will be no theory or brain science even though it’s based on those foundations. It will be about evaluating claims that we read in the news and applying logic and info literacy to understand that some sources are better than others.

Has the way the various parts of your career became woven together seemed somewhat improvised?

The whole thing has been an improvisation. I had a lot of plans that didn’t come to fruition. While I was pursuing one thing, something else came up. I learned how important it is to be flexible if something looked more interesting or offered the chance to learn something more enticing than what was I after. But throughout, I’ve stayed true to my interests: science, music, and writing. That part has never changed. I feel incredibly fortunate that the three of them have converged into one line of thinking.