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From Musician to Neuroscientist: An Interview with Daniel Levitin, PhD, author of This Is Your Brain on Music

From Musician to Neuroscientist: An Interview with Daniel Levitin, PhD, author of This Is Your Brain on Music

August 11, 2008 Interviews

Interview with Daniel J. Levitin, PhD, neuroscientist, McGill University, and author of This Is Your Brain on MusicThe Science of a Human Obsession and The World in Six SongsHow the Musical Brain Created Human Nature

By: Douglas L. Beck, AuD
Board Certified in Audiology
Web Content Editor
American Academy of Audiology

August 11, 2008

Academy/Beck: Hi, Dan. I thoroughly enjoyed the first book (This Is Your Brain on Music) and I'm just about finished with the second (The World in Six Songs). Before we get into the books, please tell me how you went from musician and producer into neuroscience?

Levitin: I was involved with neuroscience very early on. One of my first college course electives as a freshman at MIT (in 1975) was a psychology course, Introduction to Neuroscience, taught by Hans-Lukas Teuber, the co-founder of the Department of Psychology at MIT.

Academy/Beck: That must've been very exciting. I know he was very influential in neuropsychology and neurophysiology.

Levitin: That's right. He was very interesting and he inspired hundreds, if not thousands of students. After Dr. Teuber died, I went to Stanford and studied histology at age 19 with Karl Pribram. I played in a campus rock band, and dropped out of college to follow my other passion to become a rock musician. Nonetheless, I kept reading everything I could get my hands on related to neuroscience and I started to focus on brains, music, cognition, and related sciences. When I had free time, I drove down to Stanford and sat in on the neuropsychology lectures. It was an amazing time in my life and helped set the stage for what was to happen later.

Academy/Beck: Dan, I'd like to jump right in and ask you about the ability to read music. Probably the best known example of people who could not read or write music was the Beatles, in particular John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Nonetheless, they composed arguably some of the most important and influential music of all time. What can you tell me about that?

Levitin: Although I don't know Paul McCartney, a mutual friend told me that Paul was reading my book, This Is Your Brain on Music, and stopped after chapter two. McCartney said he was concerned that if he learned more about how he does what he does (as far as composing music), he may not be able to do it anymore! He's intentionally avoided learning to read and write music. If we go back to the beginning of speech, language, and music, there were many, many centuries of language and music before anyone ever thought to write a single word or note on paper. Nonetheless, the ability to read music is good and useful and has lots of value, but it certainly is not a prerequisite to composing or playing music, regardless of the music's orientation, such as classical or pop. In fact, the distinction critics and historians make among classical and modern or popular music is essentially nonsense. If you listen, they each share and overlap with the other. For instance, Handel, Hayden, Schubert, and others – so much of their music came from popular and folk tunes and was woven into their creations, but the more you listen, the more quickly the distinctions fall away.

Academy/Beck: And conversely, ballads by Elton John, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, and many other contemporary composers would sound right at home in a string quartet or orchestra. In fact, Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday, Michele, Candle in the Wind, America, Honesty, Lullaby (Good Night My Angel) were all written from that group of contemporaries, and every one easily crosses all boundaries.

Levitin: I agree. In fact, there was a Baroque-based group out of Montreal, called Les Boreades. They took 3 CDs worth of Beatles music and played them in their Baroque style on period instruments and the result is that you can hear the harmonies and melodies separate from the period production of the Beatles records; it ends up sounding a lot like Vivaldi and in fact compares very well to it.

Academy/Beck: One of the many things I appreciated in the first book was your discussion of the "10,000-hour" rule. Can you please review that?

Levitin: Yes, of course. It's not a rule so much as it is an empirical finding. But in the final analysis, it comes down to that in order to be a world-class expert in anything, be it audiology, drama, music, art, gymnastics, whatever, one needs to have a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice. Unfortunately, it doesn't mean that if you put in 10,000 hours that you will become an expert, but there aren't any cases where someone has achieved world-class mastery without it! So the time spent at the activity is indeed the most important and influential factor.

We find this with music all the time. Some people may have a biological or genetic head-start in music. In fact, we know that people, and children in particular, may all start at different levels when they get interested in music, but without 10,000 hours of practice, they probably won't achieve world-class status, regardless of their innate ability. So on a pragmatic level, it takes about three hours a day over 10 years to acquire 10,000 hours. Of course, this is consistent with what we know about how brains learn new tasks and skills. In other words, learning requires the assimilation and consolidation of knowledge within neural tissue. As the experience is repeated and enriched through practice and skill development, the stronger the memory and learning of that experience becomes.

Memory strength is also a function of how important something is to us, or how much we care about a topic or idea. Neurochemical tags mark the experience as important or less important, and they are impacted by many factors, including emotions.

Academy/Beck: Dan, would you please take a few moments to discuss neural plasticity with us? You had a very clear definition in the first book.

Levitin: Neural plasticity is the ability of the brain to reorganize itself. Through adolescence, our brains change at enormous rates and then these changes generally slow down through the teenage years as our neural circuits are exposed to more experiences and develop known patterns. This happens with new music, too. In other words, as an adult, the new music I hear becomes assimilated within the framework of the music I knew as a youth. So we continually add new information to our cognitive database, but we retrieve and analyze it in terms of what we already know.

Academy/Beck: And the same thing happens with language?

Levitin: Right. There are critical periods within which our brains are most easily able to learn new information. We know that if a child doesn't learn a second language early, say before the age of 8 or 10, then he or she will likely never learn to speak as effortlessly as a native. This makes sense given the biological course of synaptic growth – and, as Chomsky pointed out, any child can easily learn the language he or she is exposed to, but to do that as an adult is far more difficult.

Academy/Beck: And I suspect this relates to Alzheimer's and other dementias, with regard to why people with these problems are able to retain memories and sometimes sing songs from their youth?

Levitin: Yes, I think so. The most important, the longest lasting, the strongest emotional, and the most practiced memories are the ones that are embedded the deepest in the brain, and because we have retrieved them so many times previously, they are the most able to be retrieved. We all hear about people who can remember their youth, their phone number, or street address from 70 years ago, but they cannot recall what they had for breakfast. The memory of this morning's breakfast wasn't rehearsed, and wasn't very important, so it fades away quickly.

Academy/Beck: So the evolutionary question might be why does the brain access particular information readily, while other information is lost as soon as it enters?

Levitin: Music from our youth occupies a special place in the brain because of many factors. For one thing, people remember the music they liked. One topic we haven't discussed today is poetry. But I think you'll agree that poetry can be more easily recalled when it is set to music. The emotional value of music and language combined increases the neurochemical tags. So when we think about poetry in music, we get love songs, and these are particularly powerful and easy to remember. Many people can recall exactly where they were and who they were with when they first heard a particular love song. That is not at all unusual, as love songs combine meaningful music and meaningful words.

Academy/Beck: And so the things with the most meaning, and the most emotion, from the years of maximal neurocognitive development and growth are the things least likely to be forgotten?

Levitin: Right. But we're talking way beyond music, here. For example, people will remember their favorite actors, TV shows, where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, or where they were when the Challenger exploded. The emotional impact of those events is enormous and suggests vast neural tagging, and helps assure easy recall.

Academy/Beck: Excellent points. And so what came first, music or language?

Levitin: This whole issue is quite controversial. However, to claim language preceded music leads us down quite a bumpy road. For instance, consider our closest primate cousins, the apes and chimps. They engage in vocal exchanges that involve variation in pitch and rhythm, but these changes are much are "music-like" than they are "speech-like" in terms of their acoustics and their structure. And we know that evolution builds on pre-existing structures. So if we say language came first in humans, then we have to assume that humans forgot all about music, discovered language, and then rediscovered music. That doesn't make much sense. It seems more likely we had sounds, then sound elements – perhaps whistling, grunting, chanting, humming, melodies – and other music-like features and very slowly language was built upon those sound elements.

Academy/Beck: Dan, I am very appreciative of your time. Thanks so much for speaking with me today.

Levitin: It's been a pleasure, Doug.

For More Information, References and Recommendations:
This Is Your Brain on Music – The Science of a Human Obsession
ISBN 978-0-525-94969-5 (2006 hardcover, Dutton)
ISBN 978-0-4522-8852-2 (2007 paperback, Plume)
Penguin Group

The World in Six Songs – How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature
ISBN 978-0-525-95073-8 (2008)
Dutton Penguin Group

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