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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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)?
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!
(dana) Wed 15 Oct 08 11:09
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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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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??
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).
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.
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?
Hugh Watkins (hughw1936uk) Thu 16 Oct 08 16:53
written music is an aide memoire - not music which is sound or remembered sounds alone
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?
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.
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.
Daniel Levitin (daniellevitin) Fri 17 Oct 08 05:40
 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.
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?
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.
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)?
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