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.”

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