Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Thu 23 Oct 08 07:46
 Totally agree.
Bryan Higgins (bryan) Thu 23 Oct 08 09:58
Undoubtedly the dirty, distorted, rule-breaking guitars, the sloppy who-the-fuck-cares drum track, and the tobacco-scratched vocal cords which make "Smoking in the Boys' Room" more than a poem are a recent cultural phenomenon as well.
Every Acid Dealer Gets Busted Eventually (rik) Thu 23 Oct 08 10:34
In retrospect, that tune sounds like the folk music of the 70s to me. Literally thousands of garage bands sounded just like that and any of them could have done it, had they had a songwriter who could hook a ride on the zeitgeist. But the dirty, distorted guitars are breaking no rules. It's just generic mid-western folk music of its era, and actually quite well- played. It's Chuck Berry from 20 years earlier, only with the guitars mixed hotter. Even the song could have been written by Chuck. Rule- breaking would be Larry Carlton, Mike Stern, Robben Ford and Lee Ritenour using rock and blues overdrive in the jazz they were playing in the mid-70s.
Scott Underwood (esau) Thu 23 Oct 08 11:42
Listening to it just now made me think of Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" and "School's Out," but both of those are actually more complex, more "written" songs. But all three commiserate with the high schooler in the same way, and serve a similar purpose. Thinking about the idea of emotional reactions to music -- that is, to specific intervals, chords, and so on -- it does make me wonder whether there are some shared, brain-based reactions to, say, the difference between a major and a minor chord. I'm guessing that humans share similar reactions to colors based on associations from nature (red is danger, green is safe). Some intervals, like a perfect 5th, must be found in all music systems, but do Indian or Japanese listeners react differently from Westerners when hearing a minor 3rd, or a minor 2nd? (They must!)
Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Thu 23 Oct 08 15:02
 The emotional reactions we have to major and minor are culturally relative, as are the emotional, perceptual and cognitive (consonant or dissonant?) reactions to minor 2nds versus minor thirds. Some of the brain reactions are going to be similar across cultures, those that register the pitches of the individual tones. But any emotional, semantic, or pragmatic associations we have with certain intervals are going to incite different neural reactions across different people, even within a culture. Also, not all perfect 5ths are the same even to us - it depends on their function within a tune. I could be playing you a jazz tune with flat five chords and suddenly surprise you with a major triad featuring the open perfect fifth and your reaction would be one of surprise (and it would be measurable with scalp electrodes as a reaction called the P300).
Scott Underwood (esau) Thu 23 Oct 08 15:22
Do musicians react differently than, um, civilians to surprises like that? I could see them acknowledging it in a different way; surprise, but understanding.
Every Acid Dealer Gets Busted Eventually (rik) Thu 23 Oct 08 15:24
Interesting question. I'd suspect the answer's yes, but would love to hear from the guy with access to an MRI machine.
Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Thu 23 Oct 08 23:46
Surprise and understanding typically occur in different parts of the brain. In general, musicians' brains are different in subtle ways, but so are the brains of anyone with expertise: athletes, writers, painters, carpenters . . . that's what learning *is*. But in the case of musicians, they have more efficient systems for processing music and more finely honed expectations, and this shows up in brain scans.
Cupido, Ergo Sum (robertflink) Fri 24 Oct 08 13:43
Do you see a difference between the brains of those that emphasize exploring new way of music and those that a trying to "perfect" a form or skill.
Hugh Watkins (hughw1936uk) Fri 24 Oct 08 15:35
being a musician is a job there is the music one does for money and other music one does as part of ones personal life you have to be very very self critical to reach a high enough standard to earn a living, which means ones is seldom satisfied by a performance
Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Fri 24 Oct 08 19:50
 Hugh, you sound like someone for whom all the joy has gone out of making music, and I feel sorry for you. I know lots of musicians who are at the top of their field and they love what they do, unselfcritically, and look upon each performance as a priviledge, an opportunity to reach people, and to grow. What you wrote might apply to you, but I don't think that the non-musician readers here should assume that all musicians share that feeling.
Scott Underwood (esau) Sat 25 Oct 08 11:35
It's funny, I've known musicians of all stripes. Those who with musical "day-jobs" that are quite separate from their efforts at self- expression (art, if you will), and others who seem to still get joy out of playing weddings or cruise ships. Likewise, in matters of taste, those who soak up everything and those whose experience has led them to a narrower view that vehemently excludes all but their own passions (these have often been skilled jazz or classical musicians).
Scott Underwood (esau) Sat 25 Oct 08 11:42
I've just read a fascinating article in the November Harper's, a review of two books about "the invention of the blues" and a CD of early blues records by "phantoms," artists about whom no information is known. But the article largely describes the obsessive white collectors (including the guitarist John Fahey) who gathered and preserved these early sides. Two things stood out. The first was a parenthetical aside: "the early blues was almost never played in a minor key." There goes one of my cultural assumptions. The other is that the blues are somehow "pure" expressions from a folk tradition, luckily caught on record, and not deliberate art in the sense we reserve for Beethoven and Coltrane. Bluesmen like Robert Johnson learned their craft from recordings as much as each other. The author writes, Songs like that were not made for dancing. Not even for singing along. They were made for listening. For grown-ups. They were chamber compositions.
Ed Ward (captward) Sat 25 Oct 08 12:22
But if you couldn't play a dance, you couldn't make a living. Not many chamber recitals amoung country black folk in the '30s, I'd bet.
Scott Underwood (esau) Sat 25 Oct 08 12:46
I believe Robert Johnson could play all sorts of things, and played street corners as well as dances. But what he recorded wasn't how he made his living. And his "living" was mostly on the move, staying with friends and strangers and playing for meals; at least, my impression of itinerant blues musicians doesn't involve royalty checks.
Ed Ward (captward) Sat 25 Oct 08 12:51
Yeah, that's how I understood it.
Sharon Brogan (sbmontana) Sat 25 Oct 08 13:44
Wow. 'Playing for Change' -- interview on Bill Moyers: <http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/10242008/profile2.html> <http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/10242008/profile2.html> This had me up dancing in my livingroom.
Scott Underwood (esau) Sat 25 Oct 08 22:54
That is a pointer to an 18-minute episode of Moyers interviewing MArk Johnson, codirector of Playing for Change, http://playingforchange.com. It's a documentary that "brings together musicians from around the world blues singers in a waterlogged New Orleans, chamber groups in Moscow, a South African choir to collaborate on songs familiar and new, in the effort to foster a new, greater understanding of our commonality." Thanks for the pointer.
Bryan Higgins (bryan) Mon 27 Oct 08 17:44
Daniel, I enjoyed the final chapters of "Six Songs," especially the discussion of ritual. I did find one erratum in the description of "Pomp and Circumstance": The first fifteen notes are all stepwise and then the sixteenth note of the piece takes a large ascending leap of a perfect fourth immediately followed by a falling perfect fifth, a move that grabs our attention. There are in fact a couple of falls of a fourth before that, between notes 4 and 5 and notes 10 and 11. Probably you meant there are two jumps in a row for the first time at the point you mention.
Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Mon 27 Oct 08 18:18
 You're absolutely right. IN fact I caught this at the copyedit stage but the correction didn't make it into the book. Publishing is fraught with pitfalls of all sorts. Future printings will correct this. Sorry about that!
Scott Underwood (esau) Mon 27 Oct 08 19:51
Dan, maybe you can talk about your current projects. You seem to be balancing science, book promotion, and music -- I note you'll be playing a rock festival for scientists in spring. What's going on at the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill? Can you explain the workings of the lab and the topics you concentrate on? For instance, I note you research the musical functions of people diagnosed with the genetic disorder Williams Syndrome, which sounds intriguing.
Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Tue 28 Oct 08 18:45
 My lab has 15 researchers - full time technical staff, visiting professors, doctoral students, post-doctoral students, and undergrads. We look at the science of musical sound from a number of different methodological perspectives, using brain scans (neuroimaging), psychophysics, and studies of special populations such as Williams Syndrome, autism and Down Syndrome. When the special populations are defined by a genetic abnormality, it helps us to better make links between genes, brain development, and behavior. I have about 25 projects going on in parallel. We've just finished a 3 year project on the nature of music cognition amongst people with autistic spectrum disorders. I can't (ethically) talk about that work until it is reviewed by peer-reviewers, but I can say we found some important structural differences in the way that individuals with ASD understand music. We're also working on understanding the perceptual differences in mp3 vs CD vs SACD; absolute pitch perception; the perception of timing; and the way in which timing and amplitude variation in music conveys emotion. I'm able to travel and write books and play music because I have a very talented group of people in the lab who do most of the work. We meet regularly in person, by phone or email, and that's how things keep on keeping on. One measure of their talent is that I've been able to confer 5 doctoral degrees (PhD) in the 8 years I've been at McGill, and supervised the training of 3 post-doctoral fellows, and all are now employed at top places such as UCLA, University of Michigan, and University of British Columbia.
Scott Underwood (esau) Tue 28 Oct 08 19:52
It seems like it must be a heady time in the field, which you described as being small enough that you all are relatively familiar with each other, personally and academically. Even the lay reader gets a chance to participate not only with your books, but Oliver Sacks's excellent "Musicophilia," Robert Jourdain's "Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy" (which I own but I haven't yet read), and several other books Amazon reveals are available on the subject. Did you read Sacks's books, or any of the others in this space?
Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Wed 29 Oct 08 11:22
I've read all the books on music and the brain. I had the opportunity to read Oliver's in draft form. The books are really complimentary in that there isn't really any substantial duplication from one book to another. If you're interested in the field, my books and Oliver's are perhaps the best place to start (they're intended for a lay audience) and then the excellent books by David Huron (Sweet Anticipation) and Ani Patel (Music, Language and the Brain) are higher level and rewarding. Two books by Leonard Meyer are considered classics in the field (
Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Wed 29 Oct 08 11:24
Emotion and Meaning in Music, and Music, The ARts and Ideas). I read Jourdain's book and although it is a bit dated, it is also a good read. For the more ambitious/advanced reader, I strongly recommend Diana Deutch's "Psychology of Music" book from Academic Press. There has been an exponential increase in research articles on music and the brain over the last 20 years. This is indeed a heady time. As my old boss David Liddle (ex Xerox-PARC) used to say, it's a fertile field with a lot of low-hanging fruit.
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