Music on the Brain

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Daniel Levitin has had the kind of career of which a certain brand of nerdy music lover can only dream. He was a session musician, a sound engineer (for, among others Carlos Santana and The Grateful Dead), a record producer (Blue Öyster Cult, Chris Isaak, Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan), an A&R man for a record label… and then he went back to school for the obvious next job: a psychologist who studies what music does to our brains and what our brains do to music.

I’m not interested in going on a fishing expedition to try every possible musical stimulus and find out where it occurs in the brain…. The point for me isn’t to develop a map of the brain, but to understand how it works, how the different regions coordinate their activity together, how the simple firing of neurons and shuttling around of neurotransmitters leads to thoughts, laughter, feelings of profound joy and sadness, and how all all these, in turn, can lead us to create lasting, meaningful works of art.

Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

There are countless questions, for him and for our community, but this post is, as we say around the Open Source office, just a stub. More tomorrow.

Update, 12/7 4:39pm

Well, I didn’t come through on the promise for more. Blame the Iraq Study Group. But there’s less of a need to than I’d thought, because so many of you have already written smart responses to the questions I never bothered to ask.

Manning120: after you pointed it out again, I just reread your show pitch from December 3rd — and my dismissive response to it! — and I’m glad that (even if we didn’t make the connection as explicitly as we should have) we’re taking cues from you. Thanks for the original pitch, and I hope you enjoy what we’re doing with this show.

Daniel Levitin

Author, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human ObsessionProfessor of Psychology, McGill University

Director, Laboratory for Music, Perception, Cognition, and Expertise

Michael Brook

Composer, Producer, and Guitarist

Daniel Dennett

Professor of philosophy, Tufts UniversityDirector, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University

Author, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, among many others

Extra Credit Reading
John Hawks, Geometry, music and the brain, John Hawk’s weblog, July 11th, 2006: “Whether by training or innate preference, human minds perceive certain classes of mathematical relationships among chords and note sequences as ‘special’. We may describe this ‘specialness’ in many different terms: ‘harmonic’, ‘melodic’, ‘musical’, ‘cool’, etc. Some of these paths have emotional resonance. Some of them have become loaded with cultural significance.”Randy Dotinga, Music Makes Your Brain Happy, Wired News, August 23, 2006: “We’ve learned that musical ability is actually not one ability but a set of abilities, a dozen or more. Through brain damage, you can lose one component and not necessarily lose the others. You can lose rhythm and retain pitch, for example, that kind of thing.”

Russell Davies, this is your brain on music, russell davies, November 22, 2006: “A spandrel is apparently an accidental byproduct of a design decision — so if you design some arches to hold up a dome then the space between the arches is a spandrel. And, according to Steven Pinker, music is a spandrel.”

Timothy Egan, Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music (2006), a progressive on the prarie, November 27, 2006: “Many freely admit they are addicted. I am one of them. We can’t go through a day without listening to music on the radio, a stereo or MP3 player. Purchase of concert tickets or a new release by a favorite artist ranks among the necessities of life. Snippets of songs heard in passing almost immediately bring back memories of other times and places. Regardless of how many times we may have heard them, other songs inevitably give us goose bumps.”

Benjamin Zendel, Music and the Brain Entry #8, Music and the Brain, December 06, 2006: “This study examined the possibility that there was some neural activity before the onset of a tone in a rhythmic sequence. If unique activity could be recorded before or during the onset of an individual tone in a series of isochronous tones, then that brain activity could be a neural representation of expectancy.”

Related Content

  • manning120

    See my December 3, 2006 comment on “Pitch a Show.”

  • mynocturama

    I recall fMRI studies which compared the brain activity of the musically trained vs. untrained while listening to music. The former, musicians of developed competence and skill, seemed to listen to the music as though they were listening to language. That is, the specific brain regions normally associated with language were activated in response to the music, as opposed to a more general, diffused pattern of brain activity with nonmusicians.

    It’s been a little while since I’ve read those studies in any detail, but I think that’s the gist of it. I’ll try to find and site the source, maybe post a link to the original study if it’s available.

  • maryrossi

    Bill Rossi, an accomplished musician, educator, and author, has had many students who, as a result of their studying piano with him, developed increased focus, coherency, and more comprehensive thinking — which would probably be considered to be a result of neurogenesis. During this time he created a unique teaching approach based on his experience with (and deep understanding about) the many ways the arts affect us. He is currently Executive Director of Educational Mentoring through the Arts & Humanities (EMTAH) which can be found at I’m sorry we didn’t learn about this show earlier!

  • joshua hendrickson

    It doesn’t surprise me that the brain responds to music as to language. Music is certainly extremely ancient in human culture, possibly as old or older than spoken language. Music is also one of the first abilities to develop in young children.

    I have always had a deep response to music. Certain passages in classical, and certain songs by certain artists, all have the power to bring me to tears if I listen to them, or even if all I do is think about them for a second. On the other hand, I have no musical ability at all, no skill with any instrument, and while I can carry a tune (and have performed solos in stage musicals) I would never consider myself anything more than a mediocre singer. But creating music is not my way of connecting with it. I have a different way:

    I’m a novelist, and from my earliest writings I have composed my books to music. The first thing I do as soon as I have a story in mind is to record a collection of songs–a soundtrack–that either illustrate specific scenes or provide themes and moods that pertain to particular characters and plot events. One of these soundtracks, which accompanies a long fantasy novel of mine, is contained on twenty-eight cds–something like 35 hours of music!

    It’s impossible for me to imagine how I could have possibly developed as a novelist without the inspiration of music. Indeed, without it, I might never have become a novelist at all.

  • japhyryder

    over the past few years, i wake up every morning with a different song in my head…ususally by the time i get out of the shower i’ve figured out what the song is, but it often sets a tone for the day. recently i’ve been keeping a log of the songs. interestingly, at least half of them are not songs that i’ve ever owned or have on my iPod.

  • mynocturama

    Joshua – there’s a huge amount of scholarship on the music-language relation. And, since you mentioned the ancient origins of music, its early appearance in the development of both the individual and the species, I’d suggest checking out the book “The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body” by Steven Mithen. There’s a good review of it in the New York Review of Books (the reviewer thought the title silly – I think it’s charmingly goofy).

    Plus, here’s a passage you might appreciate from Coetzee’s “Disgrace”, describing the musings of a former modern language professor, forced into the communications department “since Classics and Modern Languages were closed down as part of the great rationalization”:

    “Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds its first premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: ‘Human society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other.’ His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.”

  • mynocturama

    Wittgenstein, by the way, had perfect pitch.

    Thought I’d toss that out there, for no good reason really.

  • maryrossi

    Bill Rossi, Exec. Dir. of Educational Mentoring through the Arts & Humanities (EMTAH) writes: “Albert Einstein said his theory of relativity ‘was a result of musical perception.’ Heady stuff, yes, but providing entrance into the world of intuition is only one of the many valuable roles the arts can play in our lives.

    The arts can redress a host of mental challenges, including ADHD and the havoc of trauma, not only because they can prompt the integration of different regions of the brain and engage and unite physical and emotional areas of a person, but because they create positivity, and with that comes a sense of hope. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the lack of creative learning opportunities has greatly contributed to many of our culture’s current difficulties – it’s also true that the arts offer a healthy avenue worth pursuing to find our way out.

    The arts can lead one to greater self understanding and a life of meaning … perhaps that’s a subject for another show?”

  • joshua hendrickson


    thanks for the suggestion of the book. Strange, though … I don’t find the title either silly or goofy, though I agree that it is charming. Why should it be? Only our own anthropomorphism makes it so, and it only takes a little imagination to look past that.

    I loved that passage … is it fiction or non-fiction? (I’m not familiar with Coetzee.) Language probably did evolve from song. I believe that the Ancients possessed poetry/music before anything like a more rational language. After all, our imaginative powers of mind were probably the first to develop after our initial tool-using phase had got underway, and imagination leads directly to wonder and fancy … and hence to poetry, religion, and myth.

  • mollyl

    Singing — especially choral singing in a performance environment — is the most effective anti-depressant I’ve found. I’m sure it has to do with adrenaline and other chemicals the brain produces during performance, but even if I’m not singing in a venue full of hundreds of people, I find the physicality of singing creates positive mental effects. (Solo-singing, on the otherhand, for me anyhow, comes with more stress and cancels out some of the more relaxed benefits of making music in a group.)

    I’ve thought about this a lot but haven’t tried to articulate it before. There is a mathematical aspect to music that I think must engage different parts of the brain than the language areas discussed above. As I’ve learned to read music better and can follow a complicated score, I’ve thought it’s precisely the non-language aspect, this more mathematical aspect of music, that helps suspend the analytical, overly-verbal tendencies of certain personalities (I’m a writer) in a freeing way. Anyhow, music isn’t just good for the soul, it’s good for the mind and body, and performance can be great for depression. I think singing and participating in music-making have been the only times I’ve truly experienced uncomplicated joy.

  • ejbisme

    The Oxford Encycolpedia of the Mind has an article on psychology and music that gives three models for how we process music – as pattern, as a language and/or as a psychoacoustic phenomenon akin to the way we listen to the sound of a waterfall or bird song.

    I find this corresponds to my own experience. I also think that some music (and some passages in some pieces) calls for one kind of listening but not another so much. Also, I think some listeners are predisposed and maybe even pre-wired to listen in one manner but not another. Problems certainly arise when one attempts to listen to music that operates on one model (the loosely-labeled “psychoacoustic” one, say, that might characterize a lot of new music) with the “language” modality – the way we might listen to a Mozart concerto. The expectations of the “language” mode are not thwarted by random-sounding music.

  • joek

    as an aside… i am a singer songwriter, have been for 20 years…male, baritone… i have had conversations with women from time to time and they have told me that there is a range of notes, melody, that hits them more in their erogenous zones than their mentality… i mean come on i am a folk singer, but they say when i hit certain notes it resonates quite literaly with their bodies… i haven’t been crass enough to write a song that really kicks it up… but maybe i should…so its not all about the brain…

  • jazzman

    As technological capabilities expand to permit detection of neural patterns and relationships in the brain during various stimuli, it is to be expected that a more or less universal stimulus which “hath charms to soothe the savage breast” would be investigated. It may be interesting to those who prefer a reductionist approach to phenomena but I doubt this methodology will reveal anything but generalities.

    I have been a musician as long as I can remember; all the males in my family were born with perfect pitch. We can trace it as far back to my great grandfather and forward to my son. My father’s sister and her offspring don’t have it nor does my sister so it seems to be a Y-chromosome trait, at least in my family. My parents tell me that I was picking out recognizable tunes on the piano before I was 2 but I don’t remember that far back. It seems to me that the purely vibrational aspect of music (most music includes a temporal or rhythmic component as well) is both an innate and a learned phenomenon.

    I was exposed to classical, religious and popular musical music almost exclusively until I was 10 when I got a radio. I studied classical piano and organ (I was a also church organist ) until I was 14 and didn’t gravitate to popular music until I found the Beatles and everything changed. Since then my ear has evolved to where I prefer improvised music from the most basic harmonic structure to pure dissonance (which can be mathematically quantified but I believe it’s in the ear of the behearer.)

    I still enjoy “classical” music for its compositional quality but such music could be played by a sophisticated computer and be as enjoyable. What each of us hears is a personally created construct of translated vibrating air and arranged according to our own emotions and predilections and that is NOT quantifiable by anyone except ourselves.

  • Ben Prentice

    Would you discuss how and why music is, (at least to me and probably most), akin to smell in that it can instantly bring back a memory, a time period or often a very specific moment, especially that music that we grew up with, and as a result those memories to which we return may be 30 years old? It seems to me that, while odors are considered the strongest activators of memory, music is equally powerful.

  • turseinwestfalmouth

    Dear Chris and Brendan et al-

    No!! No, No, No, No!!!!! The marvelous rumblings in the bass are NOT threats!!!! They are power awakening deep within. They do not (italics) conflict with the calm and reverent beauty of the initial phrases.

    To paraphrase the father of a great American writer, “Any(bracket)one(bracket) with an ear can hear it.”

    (Reference that quote from The Long Winter ((underlined as I was taught to do with a book’s title but don’t know how to do on this new computer, as you can see I also can’t do w italics-)) by Laura Ingalls Wilder.)

    Love (italics) Open Source- especially those of the caliber I heard tonight.

    Wylderose in West Falmouth.

  • I’ve often lamented not hearing the shows here in California until long after the broadcast, but probably no more than today. This is a topic quite near to me, as someone who enjoys, performs, composes and studies music and sound. I do wonder how my fondness for atonal and even “noise” music fits into the cognitive picture – I do have pieces in modern music I come back to for pure enjoyment (e.g., Xenakis, Stockhausen). I’d like to think it’s part of the same enjoyment of music for more popular and traditional genres.

    By contrast, I detest much of the pop music from when I was 13 (in the mid 1980s), go figure.

  • That was a great show! My theory is that music, language & art developed together as complimentary forms of expression in humans. As much as finesse on dance floor or serenading under the window are sure ways to improve mate attraction, I think it goes way beyond that. My grandfather who played the fiddle and the bagpipes said, “Music is the language of the soul”. Music not only attracts a mate, it sings the baby to sleep. My family actually sang along with Mitch Miller. It was fun. Music aids the rhythm of workday, and if the work is bad there are union songs. Music celebrates and recoreds events of importance and when the mate is gone music sings the blues. Music unifies, be it your football fight song or the International. Music worships, gives thanks and pleads to a universe that gives as well as it takes takes. Then there’s all that chanting many cultures use to meditate and get close to god/enlightenment. In both Girl Scout camp and Earth First! I loved making music around a campfire. It was tribal.

    I was lucky enough to be 13 in 1965: Love Potion Number Nine, Searchers, Downtown (talk about an ear worm), Petula Clark, My Girl, Temptations. I’ve heard about people selling cars by figuring out what music was popular when the customer was 18 and playing music from that year in the car when they take the customer for a test drive. I’m sure it would work on me.

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  • manning120

    Wonderful topic, show (I just listened to it), and posts. There was nothing in the show or the comments so far that I really disagree with, but I think some fundamental points were omitted.

    Music is for many people the premier art. Most of the following comments readily extend to the other arts.

    Understanding music, in my opinion, requires distinguishing between sensations and emotions. We experience and recall sensations – mental activity that occurs when we see, feel, hear, or smell things. We only experience emotions. In other words, we can recall events of great achievement or happiness, or suffering, or tragedy, but the emotions arising from events can only be (re)experienced through experiencing new events, or recalling past events. When a past event recalled engenders an emotional response that originally occurred with the event, it’s not a memory of the emotion that we experience; it’s the same emotion, although it may have greater or less intensity or duration. The same events can cause different emotions at different times, such as pleasant emotions when the events first occurred, but unpleasant when recalled or repeated.

    While sensations aren’t emotions, positive emotions (emotions that give meaning to existence) are often, but not always, associated with pleasant sensations, and negative emotions with unpleasant sensations.

    With the foregoing in mind, we can say that music is rhythms and tones organized for the purpose of evoking/inspiring/causing/kindling/rekindling positive emotions. Strongly positive emotions arise from life experiences rarely and briefly. Music can kindle them or bring them back repeatedly and at length, sometimes even more intensely than originally experienced. Good music successfully evokes these emotions; the better the music, the more effectively it inspires the emotions. Surprises cleverly embodied in music add to its power immensely, but not all surprises are clever.

    I agree that music can arouse memories, and sometimes is designed and used specifically for that. We use the terms “theme song” and “old favorites” to identify this use of music. But that isn’t music’s primary or essential use. Music can evoke positive emotions even if the composer/performer and listener have no specific events in mind. Often it enhances experiences we are having for the first time, like the soundtrack enhances events in a movie.

    I believe no one mentioned the role of music in placing in perspective tragedy, loss of loved ones, contemplation of our own death, etc. This is the particular emphasis of songs like “Yesterday,” which was accused of being a sad song; I prefer to say it gives meaning to sad events. I think this role of music is actually its most essential and profound.

    The theory I’ve stated, if not persuasive enough in itself, could be tested by scientific experiment.

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