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12376Clip: Music of the Hemispheres

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  • Carl Z.
    Jan 1, 2007
      Why not start out the new year by considering why we like music?
      Interesting story in the New York Times this weekend.


      Music of the Hemispheres
      Published: December 31, 2006

      "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.

      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?

      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