forum discussion #7

Music on Your Brain

Brain

Music is more than just pitch and rhythm, timbre and tempo.

Music can comfort. Or annoy.

It helps us celebrate – and mourn.

Music can foster a sense of group identity. (Consider national anthems.)

Are human beings hard-wired to enjoy music? What role did music play in the evolution of human societies? What would life be without music?

In this World Science Forum, we talk to Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University. He’s an expert on music cognition and the author of two books: This is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs.
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Levitin2Levitin argues that music is at the heart of human nature.

The World’s Rhitu Chatterjee spoke with Levitin for The World Science Podcast.

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Listeners asked Levitin their own questions on The World Science Forum.

  • Are human beings unique in their ability to appreciate music? Have you ever seen your pet dog or cat entranced by music?
  • Levitin argues that music paved the way for more complex behaviors like language to evolve. But how do we know that music evolved before language?
  • Do you attribute your musical tastes to your genes or your upbringing?

Video Credit: World Science Festival

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  1. Louise Hetzler

    I have enjoyed reading your two books. You have written about the brain of a composer as being rare. I am assuming you are refering to classical composers who are composing many parts that go into a complex orchestral peice. What about the brains of garden variety singer-songwriters? Is it a rare gift to be a songwriter, in your opinion?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

      Hi, Louise. You’ve got me at a loss here because I don’t remember writing that the brain of a composer is rare (although I did say, with respect to the brain scans I did with Sting, that the opportunity to study the brain of a great composer or songwriter is rare).

      I’m not sure that composers brains are that different from anyone else’s. Certainly the way they use them is different, but the same could be said for journalists, scientists, painters, auto mechanics – each thing we do requires different use and configurations of the brain. I do consider it very special to be able to write music – either in any idiom – and be able to reach many people. I’m not sure it is a “gift” in the conventional sense; most of the songwriters and composers worked very hard to get there.

      • Louise Hetzler

        Thank you for your reply. Now I can’t remember where I read that one can tell the brain of a musician from the brain of a non-musician, and that a composer’s brain is the “rarest” of them all!

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

        Hi, Louise. You’re right! One can often tell the brain of a musician from the brain of a non-musician. Gottfried Schlaug (a colleague at Harvard) has perhaps done the most work on this. There are differences in particular areas, including a thicker corpus collosum (the tract of fibres that connects the two hemispheres) that appear to be reliable. What we don’t know is whether musician brains start out different or become that way through practice, but Dr. Schlaug’s work suggests it is the latter.

        Thanks for your post!

      • Gareth Hyndman

        I forget the source, and I wish I could find it on the internet – but a Medical Examiner mentioned that he could not distinguish Einstein’s Brain from any other person, but a professional musician or composer had a visually distinguishable Brain. I found that idea fascinating. I was wondering how much plasticity plays a role in that and/or genetics. And if you had any idea of the source of that statement or its veracity.

  2. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? David Baron

    I am curious about your statement that music helps foster a sense of group identity. Couldn’t the same be said of styles of dress, or tastes in food, or even movie preferences? Is there something special about music in defining the groups we belong to?

    Many thanks for participating in this discussion!

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

      Excellent point, David. Yes – I would say that. What’s different about music is that it sticks in your head and is more easily remembered, and evokes more emotions (in most people, as far as we know) than these other things you mentioned.

      • Jon Prince

        There is a recent paper in Psychological Science suggesting that acting in temporal synchrony (e.g., dancing, singing, etc.) increases group cohesion (Wiltermuth & Heath, 2009). So there may be something special about music that fosters not only a longer-term social identity but also a shorter-term bond from aligning in time. Cheers!

        Jon

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

        In reply to my music cognition colleague Jon Prince – yes, this is true. In the case of music (as I describe in Chapter 2 of “The World in Six Songs”), that “something special” about music that fosters bonding seems to be the release of oxytocin during music making, a hormone associated with feelings of trust and togetherness.

  3. Andrea

    Hey Daniel,
    I am curious…

    Why didn’t you include a 7th category that involves fight? – it seems so basic to man’s nature. (I just ordered and am awaiting my copy of your book.) There is so much “testosterone” (gladiator) music in our own culture and through time, competition and power not only for defense (survival) but also the sheer need for power and control. Perhaps there has to be another for us to be more connected? The Assyrians of world antiquity were certainly a warlike people. As a species, is this an essential trait?

    If this is covered in your book, or off topic, so sorry. Just thinking aloud.

    Once you have love, you have hate, once you have joy you have sorrow, and on down the line. Has this been studied in neuroscience?

  4. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

    Thanks, Andrea. Good point! I agree 100%. To me, hate and agression are part of an “us versus them” (or me vs you” mentality). In the case of armies and wars, those same songs that are supposed to terrorize the enemy are also supposed to galvanize us. So I included fight songs in the category of “togetherness” or “social bonding” songs, what I loosely (using poetic license) call “friendship” songs in “The World in Six Songs.” I’ve asked my editor to let me change the name of the category to “social bonding” in a subsequent printing.

  5. Hanna

    I was wondering about more “brain and music” research related questions. First, can you determine if a person at a certain moment is listening to music or not just by looking at the brain (via fMRI or EEG, or any using other methods)? Second, I heard that fMRI scanners are really loud. So how do research about the brain and music if these machines are so loud? And last: When listening to music while working I sometimes get so concentrated that I do not hear the music anymore. Sometimes I realize this state and what happens then is that the music “fades in” (in about 200 ms). Is this fading-in-experience common, why a fade, no click?

    Looking forward to reading your books!

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

      Wow – what great questions (or as the kidz say, gr8 ?s).

      In some cases you can tell if a person is listening to music just by looking at brain activity. What complicates things is that the pattern of activation looks *almost* identical when someone is merely imagining music.

      You’re right that fRMI is very noisy. In the experiments I’ve done, we take foam ear plugs and drill a narrow hole through them. Then we thread through that a hollow plastic tube. The listener puts the ear plug in their ears and that blocks out about 28 or 30 dB. Then we have the person put sound blocking headphones on, the same kind that airline workers wear out on the tarmac, and that blocks an additional 30 dB or so. The music is piped in pneumatically through the little tubes. (more)

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

        THEN, we play music for 30 – 60 seconds with the scanner OFF (the machine is still making residual noise) and after the music has played, THEN we do the scanning. Because it takes the blood about 3 – 8 seconds to go where it’s going, this method works. An alternative is to use PET which requires a radioactive tracer injection, but the PET machine is very quiet.

        The reason the music “fades in” rather than clicking is because your brain is really attending to it all along, at some level. You only get a click from a sudden onset or offset in the stimulus (like on tape or a computer file) when the onset is not at the “zero crossing” of the waveform. This isn’t the case with listening.

      • Hanna

        Thank you for your kind and very interesting reply. Reading your answers another question came to my mind: can people in general choose what sounds they perceive as music? I sometimes do so, for example the sounds in the train, silence, speech etc. But the other way around – listening to something which is “clearly intended to be perceived as music”, e.g. a piano piece: I can not really choose to not perceive it as music…. Is it generally so that one can choose to perceive something as music or not as music? Thanks again, Hanna

      • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

        Hanna,
        The human brain has a tendency to try to make order out of chaos – this is why we see shapes in clouds and hear “organized sound” (or music) even in sounds that weren’t composed as music. It is one of the achievements of the human brain that we can do this, but a flaw if you will that we sometimes find patterns where they don’t exist. Trying to shut off the organization system and NOT hear music as music is more difficult, as you’ve noticed, because the system is more or less hard wired into the brain.

  6. Larry Spencer

    Are musicians crazier than others? I mean, Whitney & Bobby Brown, Amy Winehouse. I guess other people who want to be famous are also crazy, like the Salahis, and that balloon guy in Denver. But is it worse in musicians? And if so, why?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

      I’d say “no.” There are a lot of crazy people out there, and lots who are mentally or emotionally unstable. It’s just that when they’re in the public eye you hear about them. Psychologists have studied creativity and mental illness and found that if anything, mental illness is a hindrance to creativity, not a benefit.

      That said, artists often find that their work is easier if they keep their emotions close to the suface, where they can draw on them as needed. This can make them appear “crazy” or volatile or super emotional (compared to what we consider normal) because they’re not regulating their emotions the way most of us do in polite society. And many of them say they wouldn’t want to. But to me that’s not crazy.

  7. Louise Hetzler

    I heartily agree with your reply to Larry. As artists and musicians we strive to create something of beauty that has never existed in the world before. There is an emotional connection between the art/artist and the viewer/listener. “The artist’s work is to create beauty out of order and chaos.” (That saying is also a haiku poem!)

  8. Stephen

    Daniel – I enjoyed your thoughts about the “sweet spot” between predictability and surprise that makes some music appealing. You cited Rosanne Cash’s non-standard sequencing of familiar chords in one song as an example. I was wondering whether you have studied the emotional impact of chord sequences. I frequently get a lump in my throat when a composer jumps out of the key momentarily with a substitute chord. Burt Bacharach can reduce me to jelly. Also, the IV to I cadence, the “amen” of a church hymn, grabs me, but that might be early socialization. I suspect good composers do this instinctively, but is there a science to the emotional impact of chord sequences?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

      I think I get that same lump. And for me, I also get it when hearing a IV major to IV minor to I sequence. Some scientists have argued that the physical, acoustic nature of sound waves confers a preference for the particular scale and chords that our western culture has developed; others say it is a matter of exposure and training. In truth, it’s probably a little of both. I would predict that if you found a listener of Indian music – and if you’ve never been exposed to Indian music – he could play you “lump in the throat” music that would do nothing to you, and vice versa. That experiment would suggest that culture and experience play a large role in why music moves us.

  9. Jayne Fields

    Hello, Dr. Levitin. I am working on my Master’s thesis, and I’m wanting to incorporate a significant musical aspect into my psychological research. In Six Songs, I believe, you talk about how we are primed to recognize and enjoy the musics of our own cultures. My topic is not approved yet, but I wish to study the way music (specifically an individual’s national anthem) affects the strengths of individual’s sense of cultural identity among natives and foreigners. You also mentioned how group singing helps create cohesion (as someone asked above), but what about the effects on a single individual who is exposed to personally-relevant music, apart from other members of their native culture? Or when they are embedded within an entirely different culture? Have you seen similar research? Thanks!

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

      There are some papers on music and autobiographical memory by Janata and by Schulkind that you might find relevant. You might also look at the social psychology literature on other things that affect the strength of an individual’s cultural identity – films, clothing styles, books – and adapt those methods to music.

      Good luck with your studies!

  10. j. abbott

    I am a lawyer with a music degree (music first, law second). Sometimes my work as a prosecutor sees me assigned to very busy plea or bail courts with a high volume of cases relative to the amount of preparation time. I tend to think that my experience as a musician, particularly my sight reading chops, really helps me out in these situations but its just a guess on my part… After all lots of my colleagues don’t share my musical background, and they get the job done too.

    Is there any science behind my lay opinion?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

      We’re just beginning to see evidence that early musical training helps people to attend to multiple events at once – listening to what you’re playing and what others are playing. This may help you to coordinate your actions with multiple others – bailiffs, defense attorneys, defendants, judges. Also music is basically about sequencing – making precise actions in a particular order. So there may be something to do this, and music training seems to involve the “anterior cingulate,” a region in the brain associated with maintaining attention and focus.

  11. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Rhitu Chatterjee

    Hello Everyone,

    I’ve posted the video (its just to the left) of part of a session called “Notes and Neurons” from the 2009 World Science Festival, where the musician Bobby McFerrin demonstrates the power of the pentatonic scale through audience participation. And Bobby says he gets the same response from people no matter where in the world he is.

    My question for Dan: Do all cultures have pentatonic scales? And is there a known neural basis to the audience response we see in this video?

    A note to everyone: Check out the rest of the videos from the Notes and Neurons session. You will enjoy the discussion, which Dan also participated in.

    Thanks,
    Rhitu

  12. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

    The pentatonic is not universal but it is widespread. All cultures we know of have the octave and all divide it up into a discrete number of intervals or steps. But the pentatonic scale that Bobby is playing with is certainly widespread, and probably has a neural basis: those five tones come from the physics of sound waves (specifically, from the overtone series, which is the same everywhere in the world). Our brains evolved over tens of thousands of years in a world with certain physical regularities, such as the overtone series, and so we come “pre-wired” to a certain extent to understand this scale.

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

      I should add – in respect of the sponsors’ logos that appear on the bottom of the page here – that all of my work on the neural basis of music was sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the work of my mentors Roger Shepard and Michael Posner was also sponsored by them. My current work is also sponsored by the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Governmental funding of scientific research has been very important to neuroscience in general, and to music and the brain in particular.

  13. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Elsa Youngsteadt

    Hello Daniel,
    In the interview you mentioned that the element of surprise in music may help keep the brain in practice for other kinds of surprises–like the tiger at the watering hole, or whatever. Is there neurological evidence that the same parts of the brain that respond to musical surprises are also involved in processing life’s other surprises?
    Thanks!
    Elsa

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

      Yes! Surprise is actually registered in several different parts of the brain, but in one that we’ve studied – in the prefrontal cortex – musical surprise causes activaton in the same areas as other surprises, for example, a sentence that ends unexpectedly (“The pizza was too hot to sleep”) or a visual sequence that is unexpected. Surprise is an adaptive strategy for the brain of course, because it indicates a gap in our knowledge of the world – things are only surprising if we failed to predict them – and it gives us an opportunity to improve that prediction system.

  14. Jonathan Dyer

    Daniel,

    In the podcast Rhitu asked what music you listen to while you work and you said that as a musician you can’t listen to music as you find it too distracting — you just find all your attention going to the music. Well I’m not a musician but I’m exactly the same way. I’ve never been able to have music on in the background while I work or read a book. It’s as if music distracts my brain in a way it doesn’t for others — well except maybe you. I wondered if you had any insight into this?

    Jonathan

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

      A lot of people say this. I guess when Rhitu asked me the question, I should have answered that “like many people, I can’t listen to music in the background because it absorbs my attention.” In other words, I’m not sure it’s because I’m a musician that this happens. I’d say that people like us are probably more sensitive to music so that if it is music we like, it draws us in more completely.

  15. Louise Hetzler

    I am reading Musicophelia by Oliver Sacks. He writes about the post-encephalitic “Awakenings” patients he worked with, and how music worked better than dopamine in getting their parkinsonism “unfrozen”, as it were. Is music the drug of choice for people living with Parkinson’s Disease today?

    • Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

      A lot of people with PD listen to music and find it helps, especially to get them moving. But notwithstanding Oliver’s observations, most PD patients need more dopamine than music can release – the levels of dopamine provided by pharmaceuticals are vastly greater than those provided by music. Still, there is something about the beat and sequencing of the music that seems to engage circuits in the basal ganglia and cerebellum to unfreeze them. More research needs to be done!

  16. Error: Unable to create directory /home/worldsci/public_html//wp-content/uploads/2014/04. Is its parent directory writable by the server? Daniel Levitin

    Thank you all for participating in the forum, and for your thought-provoking questions. I’m humbled to realize that I still don’t have anywhere near all the answers, but the fun is in the looking.

  17. Alysha Wilcox

    I’m writing a research paper on how music effects the brain and was wondering what some points are that you think I should include? Thanks, alysha

  18. Dr. Levitin, your argument that music is at the heart of human nature was very interesting to me. My research has indicated music may be the innate and inherent remedial language of the brain. I invite you to read a published thesis paper posted at PianoLogic.com to this effect. I would be most appreciative of your comments. I look forward to your reply.

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