inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #0 of 103: Lisa Harris (lrph) Mon 13 Oct 08 12:51
    
We're pleased to welcome to the Inkwell Daniel Levitin, author of "The World
In Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature."

Daniel J. Levitin is a Professor of Psychology, Music and Computer
 Science at McGill University.  He is the author of the international
 best-seller "This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human
 Obsession," which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 12
 months and has been translated into 11 languages.  "The World in Six
 Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature" was released in
 August 2008 and debuted at #4.  Prior to entering academia, Levitin was
 a record producer and engineer with artists such as Blue Oyster Cult,
 Chris Isaak, and Stevie Wonder.


Leading the interview is our own Scott Underwood.

As a kid, Scott Underwood listened to his parents' Hank Williams, Kingston
 Trio, Harry Belafonte, and Jazz at the Philharmonic LPs, and heard the
 Beatles from his sister's room. His tastes now range from Bach to Reich,
 Beatles to Zappa, Basie to Frisell, and Nusrat to N'Dour. At 7, he learned
 guitar from the Alfred guitar course, bought an electric guitar at 13, and
 took up electric bass in his 20s. He dabbles as a musician with whomever
 asks him to play, and as a listener to whatever he's told he'll like.
During
 the day, Scott works for a design company in Palo Alto, California, where
he
 writes and speaks as a cultural advisor and company storyteller.

Welcome gentlemen.
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #1 of 103: Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Mon 13 Oct 08 13:23
    
Hi, everyone.  Scott: I also loved listening to Harry Belafonte as a
kid - the Caribbean rhythms were so exotic for a white kid growing up
in the pear orchards of Northern California.  A gorgeous 2 CD set of
his came out last year.

What I think those three singers you mentioned - Hank Williams, the
Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte - had most saliently in common was
that they were all great storytellers.  Each song was like a 3 minute
scene from a movie.
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #2 of 103: Get Shorty (esau) Mon 13 Oct 08 13:59
    
Thanks, Lisa, and welcome, Dan.

You make a point in your book I want to get back to, that early
exposure to music foreign to your culture's own might be an important
step to appreciating it later. (I constantly played Miriam Makeba's
"The Click Song" from Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall" as a child.)

But first!

"This Is Your Brain on Music" (TIYBOM) was one of the most eye-opening
books I read last year. While I have always had a deep connection to
music, I had no idea how deep it really is, for me and all humans. Now
with "The World in Six Songs" (TWISS), you've pushed the connections
much further, speculating that music has shaped who we are,
cognitively, culturally, and socially, as much as language, if not more.

Before we dive into the meat of the books, your personal story is
fascinating as well. You grew up as a musician and earned a living as a
successful engineer and producer. But you returned to school in your
30s to begin a very different path in neuroscience.

I'm interested in what led to that left turn, and what perspective you
have on the change now. You seem to have lost none of your enthusiasm
for music -- indeed, it's still central to your daily life. I imagine
few of your colleagues have had anything like your exposure to the
mechanics of making music.
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #3 of 103: Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Mon 13 Oct 08 19:52
    
When I was in the studio, I was still very interested in science. 
Sandy Pearlman and I used to drive down to Stanford a couple of times a
week to sit in on neuropsychology lectures by Karl Pribram, and I sat
i on physics and multivariate calculus classes at Berkeley.  The music
business started to get corrupted in the 1990s by corporate raiders.
One record company was sold to a distillery, another to a game
manufacturer, a third to a consortium of investors -- it just seemed
like the people who were running things weren't as interested in music
anymore.  I also felt I was beating my head against a wall because so
many talented musicians I worked with weren't getting ahead.  A lot of
people I knew then left the business around the same time.  Stacey
Baird (Madonna's recording engineer) went to law school and became a
lawyer with the EPA during the Clinton administration.  Ken Kessie
(producer and engineer with En Vogue, Biz Markie) went into video/film
production.  Bob Misbach (mixed Huey Lewis' "Power of Love") was an
immensely talented guy, I think he went into something with NASCAR.  So
I decided to go back to school and take classes.  I wasn't planning on
getting a Ph.D. at that point, just thought it would be fun to learn
more about all this stuff.

I still worked on a few records while I was in school. And started
writing for Billboard just to keep a hand in the part of the business I
loved so much - talking aobut  music.
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #4 of 103: Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Tue 14 Oct 08 05:30
    
On the topic of exposure to "foreign" music, it really is like
learning a language.  If you don't get it when you're young, it will
really never get under your skin the same way (actually, it won't get
wired into the substrates of your brain).  Remember, myelination
continues until you're 20 years old and then stops.  (Myelination is
integral to information transmission from one neuron to another.)  

If you have young children, I would play them every kind of music they
can get their hands on: reggae, metal, swing, country, rock, jazz,
classical, and also Indian ragas, Chinese traditional music, pygmy
music . . . it doesn't mean they'll like all these when they get older,
but you'll be giving them the neural foundations so that they can
appreciate them later if they choose to.
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #5 of 103: Get Shorty (esau) Wed 15 Oct 08 08:13
    
This is one of the big takeaways for me from the first book: that our
brains are physically changed by the process of listening and playing
music, that it isn't a sort of romantic and vague "you'll be a better
person" transformation, but a rich one that improves our ability to
think and reason. Though the "Mozart Effect" may be misreported or
misunderstood, the direct benefits of a steady diet of music seem clear.

It's especially a shame that as many researchers point out the failures
of primary education to inform our "whole brain" (rather than just the
more logical, linear left brain), and the many benefits of having a
well developed holistic right brain, music is no longer even a small
part of school. (Except, of course, that the kids are likely *more*
immersed in music than you and I were at that age, due to the constant
presence of ear-bud music before, in between, and after class.)
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #6 of 103: Get Shorty (esau) Wed 15 Oct 08 08:17
    
In TIYBOM, you seemed to have had a couple of clear goals: to give
nonmusicians an overview of the jargon and process of making music,
and to present a summary of the knowledge gathered by the researchers
working in your field of study, the cognitive science of music. 

Now with TWISS you've gone quite a lot farther, into a sort of
"speculative anthropology," and making claims for the central role
music has had in shaping our thought processes and social interactions.
This seems more broad than neuroscience usually goes.

How has the scientific community reacted to it, both among your
colleagues and those who haven't given music the study you have (e.g.
Steven "auditory cheesecake" Pinker)?
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #7 of 103: David Gans (tnf) Wed 15 Oct 08 10:58
    

Another middle-aged kid here who got a big dose of "Calypso" as a kid.  It
came up here in the WELL a while back and I bought it from the iTunes store.
Amazing how deeply my affection is for that music that I didn't hear for 45
years.  Little bits of it (e.g. those high "oh no oh no oh no"s in "Hosanna)
spark very vivid visual memories of the house and the stereo.

So glad you're here, Dan!
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #8 of 103: (dana) Wed 15 Oct 08 11:09
    
(NOTE: Offsite readers with questions or comments may have them
  added to the conversation by emailing <inkwell@well.com> -- please
  put the author's name in the subject line. Thank you!)
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #9 of 103: Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Wed 15 Oct 08 14:15
    
I had two clear (to me anyway) goals for TWISS.  One was to give non
scientists an overview of the jargon and findings in evolutionary
biology, using music as a window.  The other was to gather together
information from different fields that bears on the large questions of
"Where does music come from? Why do we have it? Why does it affect us
so?"

I have been humbled and really overwhelmed by the good reception that
the scientific community has given so far.  One of the leaders in the
field, the former editor of our main journal "Music Perception," is
Jamshed Bharucha.  He wrote that it will be an important resource for
people both in and out of the field.  Other scientists like David
Huron, Ian Cross, and Stefan Koelsch have also had a lot of nice things
to say about it. I don't think Steven Pinker has read it, or is that
interested in it - he is primarily a cognitive scientist who is
interested in language, and I'm sure it keeps him busy enough just
staying current with that literature.  I know that he hasn't read
TIYBOM yet, for example.  (I sent him pre-publication copies of both
books, explaining that I wanted to make sure that I was representing
his position fairly and accurately, but he said he didn't have time to
look at them.) 

I'm not sure that TWISS is so much "speculative" anthropology.  Of
course there is some speculation in the book, but I tried to stay close
to the facts, bringing together work from disparate fields, including
anthropology, archeology, biology, and neuroscience.  I tried to
clearly mark when I was being speculative and when I wasn't so that
readers would know.  That was important to me, as a scientist and
writer.  You're right - it goes farther than most neuroscience goes,
but I am a fan of "cognitive science" -- the interdisciplinary approach
to these questions.  I think that most of the really difficult and
interesting questions facing science today require an interdisciplinary
approach.  
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #10 of 103: Get Shorty (esau) Wed 15 Oct 08 19:11
    
Of course, I'm an amateur looking at this from far outside the
community, but it seems as though you're laying the groundwork for
scientists to take music as seriously as it takes language, which I can
imagine might threaten some, given what I have seen of the politics of
academia.

Also, as you have pointed out, music has become the realm of a select
few in our recent past, so I can also imagine that to scientists you
might as well argue that fashion design helped shape modern humans.

Which suggests another thread from the books: how music (intertwined
with dance) was such an integral part of daily life for most of human
history, and remains so for those cultures who have resisted Western
transformation.  How did music become such an intellectual pursuit in
the West, simultaneously elevated to a high art and demoted to a quaint
folk tradition, both enjoyed but not practiced by most Westerners?
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #11 of 103: Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Wed 15 Oct 08 21:55
    
Yes, I agree: part of what I hope to do is lay the groundwork for
scientists to take music more seriously.  For 15 years, I've been
trying to persuade my colleagues who write college textbooks about
perception or about cognition to have a chapter about music perception
or music cognition. . . they already have chapters devoted to language,
to vision, etc.  So far there haven't been any takers.  I'm not sure
its threatening as much as it is lack of interest.  But I could be
wrong about this attribution.

I'm not really sure what caused this shift in which music became "high
art" to be practiced by few and enjoyed by non-practitioners.  It may
have been partly influenced by advances in technology over the last 300
- 400 years that led to better instrument design, which in turn
enabled previously unattainable levels of expertise.  But that can't
account for all of it because there always would have been some people
who were better singers, chest slappers and stick hitters than others. 
 But the first concert halls were built in Europe about 500 years ago
and that began the shift.  I think the next big event -- and this is
something I've written about -- was the invention of the piano roll.

"The piano roll?" you say?!

Yes - the piano roll represented the first time in history when a
single performance could be preserved forever.  This radically altered
our conception of music as something that was ephemeral to something
that could be permanent.  This in turn led to musicians trying to
become better and better -- if there was going to be a single,
cannonical version of a song they'd better learn to play it flawlessly.
 The Edison cylinder, phonograph records, tapes, and mp3s are all the
intellectual descendants of that.
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #12 of 103: Get Shorty (esau) Wed 15 Oct 08 22:59
    
As you point out in the chapter about knowledge songs, certain songs
have a structure that helps control a song's invariability. It was as
if the song contains its own DNA, and can copy itself more or less
perfectly from person to person.

But when that task is given over to a recording, and people no longer
teach each other the songs of their people, more than just the song has
been lost -- our ability to do so may be slipping away. As you wrote,
this is what happened to the Torah: writing it down changed it from a
"living teaching" to a static document and changed its nature.

Which makes me wonder if the seeds for this actually begin when people
devised a musical notation system, first to record the music they were
making then to help invent and propagate new forms.
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #13 of 103: Darrell Jonsson (jonsson) Thu 16 Oct 08 01:18
    

Jacques Attali in his book 'Noise; the Political Economy of music' 
,if I remember right, mapped specialization in music to centralization
of political and economic power combined with the technological matrix
Leviton refers to.  Sometimes I wonder though how far the
specialization actually went, as each innovation... piano rolls, sheet
music industry, 19th century improvements to the piano and the
concurrent mass production of harmoniums and harmonicas seem to feed
both sides of the equation.

Still I've felt in the Anglo/Anglo-American world music has been
stilted to the cost of great social and psychological expense. What
problems or disease Leviton if any can you attribute (or speculate) may
be linked to musical deprivation?
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #14 of 103: Hugh Watkins (hughw1936uk) Thu 16 Oct 08 04:12
    
mechanical organs and clock chimes predate the piano roll
Mozart and Beethoven wrote:-


Beethoven's "Battle Symphony" ("Wellington's Victory") was for an
organ originally

Mozart's K.594, K.608 and K.616 pieces for mechanical organ

? sixteenth century  origins by clock makers??
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #15 of 103: Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Thu 16 Oct 08 06:25
    
Hugh is right that mechanical organs and even music boxes predate the
piano roll  -  in fact, by a thousand years.  But they lacked the
resolution and accuracy that the piano roll provided creating a
qualitative difference in the capabilities of the technology.  In fact,
piano rolls led to the first time that engineers and musicians tried
to improve a performance by repairing mistakes (something studio
musicians today take for granted).
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #16 of 103: Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Thu 16 Oct 08 06:28
    
I agree with Get Shorty that the propogation of music by writing
changed the nature of musical learning, which had previously been an
aural and oral one.  The same thing could be said of writing words.  It
removed the personal element of teaching, yet made the information
available to many orders of magnitude more people at a time, and for
posterity.
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #17 of 103: Cogito? (robertflink) Thu 16 Oct 08 15:07
    
Will music become less proprietary over time and space?  Is there less
incentive to innovate as a result?  
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #18 of 103: Hugh Watkins (hughw1936uk) Thu 16 Oct 08 16:53
    
written music is an aide memoire - not music which is sound or
remembered sounds alone
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #19 of 103: Scott Underwood (esau) Thu 16 Oct 08 20:25
    
Not sure I follow you there. Notation allowed the creation of complex
music that is otherwise not practical, the way a modern building is
made possible by an architect's plans. But it does remind me of another
aspect of music I missed when reading your book, Dan:

You used a lot of examples from pop standards and rock, the majority
lyrical music. You discussed some classical and jazz pieces, but there
is quite a lot of instrumental music I have trouble fitting into your
"Six Songs" categories (friendship, joy, comfort, knowledge, religion,
and love).

I'm thinking of some Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, or (as I'm
reading Alex Ross's "The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth
Century") some modern composers I'm not familiar with, like Schoenberg,
Webern, and others who make music that is aesthetically and
intellectually challenging.

How do these recent forms work in the long view of music?
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #20 of 103: Bryan Higgins (bryan) Thu 16 Oct 08 20:56
    
For that matter, how does most instrumental music fit into those categories?
One hears told that a Beethoven symphony represents heroism, or a Mahler
symphony his torturned struggle for the meaning of life, but really they're
just abstract notes. Instrumental music certainly can elicit an emotional
response, but putting a name on the emotion is not so easy, and can vary from
person to person.
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #21 of 103: Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Thu 16 Oct 08 21:57
    
It is true that classical music from the standard practice period and
instrumental music since then tends to be multivalent, and
multithematic -- that is one of the characteristics of it.  In cases
like these, it is the job of the composer to take us on an emotional
journey, typically a complex one.  If you feel the same at the end of a
symphony as you did at the beginning, the composer has failed.  Music
like this could fit into all six categories as it brings you through
the different emotions, that is, part of a piece may make you feel
comforted, part may make you have feelings of social bonding.  

Clearly, though, you're right, that there are many more emotions than
what can be contained in these six categories, which are not (except
for two of them) emotions at all.  The point of the book isn't to say
that every piece of music ever written (or ever to be written) fits
into one or more of these categories.  The point was to show that we
can understand a great deal about how music influenced the shape of the
human cultural narrative by looking at the ways that our ancestors
used it, and that these were six of the important ways they did so.  
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #22 of 103: Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Fri 17 Oct 08 05:40
    
[17] I don't see written music necessarily becoming less proprietary. 
We're at a kind of golden age for music right now, with more people
writing, recording and distributing their music than ever before! 
There are more songs distributed in a week today than there were in any
year of the 1960s, often held as the putative high point for
innovation in popular music of the last few generations.
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #23 of 103: Scott Underwood (esau) Fri 17 Oct 08 19:37
    
Dan, you left the music industry some time back, though you clearly
have a close connection to it still (in fact your access is enviable --
how many authors can swap ideas with Joni and Sting?). What's your take
on the current "golden age"? That's the first time I've heard it called
that!

And you allude to your own songwriting and playing, and I wonder how
serious you let yourself get these days, and what it is you play. Has
your research influenced your own work?
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #24 of 103: Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Sat 18 Oct 08 10:43
    
I'm very lucky to be able to talk to great musicians about what they
do.  I don't know why I'm so lucky! Maybe it is because they feel that
I can help give them a voice, to express for them some of what it is
that they do (and that they're not used to talking about).  I also
never lost my sense of awe and wonder about great music, which many
music industry types did, and I think they notice that.

I love the musical time we're in.  We're seeing (hearing!) more of
musical cultures mixing than ever before.  Michael Brook's work with
Nusrat and N'Dour, hip-hop artists incorporating latin and pygmy music
. . . the musical world is becoming enriched by such cross-cultural
mixing.  And artists working within more traditional music forms are,
at least to my ears, making music that is as good as any of the last
forty years: Rodney Crowell, Rufus Wainwright, Arcade Fire, and
Parthenon Huxley are just four of my current favorites who are
innovative, interesting, and insightful in their music.

I do still play publicly several times a year, and I play on my own or
with friends almost every day.  I've mostly been playing guitar lately
.  I played lead acoustic guitar with Rodney Crowell last month at a
bookstore talk in NYC, and I played rhythm guitar the following night
with Parthenon Huxley (aka PHux) in DC.  I'll be doing a show with
Rosanne Cash at Lincoln Center in April.  We haven't worked out the
details, but I'll probably accompany her on lead guitar and she'll play
rhythm.  I don't know how "serious" this all is - I mostly play for
fun.  When I find myself with a day or two free, I record in my home
studio.  Sandy Pearlman is helping me to produce demos of some of my
songs.  On those, I sing, play guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums.  
  
inkwell.vue.338 : Daniel Levitin, The World In Six Songs
permalink #25 of 103: What is going to amuse our bouches now? (bumbaugh) Sat 18 Oct 08 12:26
    
THis is great stuff, Dan.

Going back to the textbooks question for a sec: How much is leaving music
out of the textbooks on perception, etc., a consequence of privileging the
visual over and above all the rest?

And, if a lot, how much else has to change to be able to focus more on
music, or are we right to emphasize vision so heavily (given, e.g., the
vast processing capacity we devote to it)?
  

More...



Members: Enter the conference to participate

Subscribe to an RSS 2.0 feed of new responses in this topic RSS feed of new responses

   Join Us
Home | Learn About | Conferences | Member Pages | Mail | Store | Services & Help | Password | Join Us