Transcript for Daniel Levitin on "This Is Your Brain on Music"

Jim Fleming: Daniel Levitin is a scientist who runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal. In the old days, before he became a respected academic, Levitin was a well-known session musician, sound engineer, and record producer. Somewhere along the way, he started writing. His work appears widely in scientific journals and music trade publications like Grammy and Billboard. And now, he's written a book. It's not for specialists; anybody with a brain and an interest in music can enjoy it. It's called, “This Is Your Brain On Music.” Levitin came to visit us in Madison and talk with Anne Strainchamps about music and how we hear it.

Daniel Levitin: If I draw you a triangle, you recognize that it's a triangle no matter what size it is or what color it is. We say in the jargon of my field that it's transposition invariant. I can transform the triangle, and it retains its identity, and we say the same thing about melodies. I can move them around in pitch space the way I would move a chair around in 3-D Cartesian space. The chair is still a chair whether it's on my head or under my bum, and the melody is still a melody, the same one, whether it's at the top of the piano or at the bottom of the piano. Composers know this, of course, and they exploit this. This is what Beethoven does in the Fifth Symphony: [humming]. It's really the same melodic idea and he's just moved it around in pitch space, and he knows that you're going to notice that, even if you can't describe it to me. There's some part of your brain that's registered a similarity there. And then he plays around with both pitch and time when he goes, [humming]. Right, so now he's sped it up and he's moved it all over the piano keyboard or the orchestral range, and it's really just the same idea.

Anne Strainchamps: You know, we take it for granted that we can hear this stuff and that it makes sense to us, but it sounds like you're saying that this is actually a much more complex kind of business than we think. For instance, could you teach a computer to recognize and enjoy Beethoven's music?

Levitin: Well, "enjoy" is whole other conversation about whether the computer would enjoy it. But "recognize" we as a field are making some inroads into getting computers to recognize music. But it's very, very difficult. The human brain does things that the fastest and most sophisticated computer we have can't approach. I can play you two different versions of the same song, as different as Joe Cocker and Peggy Lee both doing "Cry Me A River" and you would instantly recognize it's the same song. We don't have a computer that can do that. A computer can look for things that are identical. It's not very good at looking for things that are similar.

Strainchamps: One of the things that you've done that's so interesting is you've looked at how both the brain hears and responds to music, and then you have looked at the ways in which composers and performers have played around with music as a result. And you've brought a bunch of examples for us. I wonder if we could talk about some of those.

Levitin: Sure. One of the things that's so special about it is that almost all music has this sense of momentum, it's going somewhere, but it's going somewhere at a regular pace. [clapping] Music has this beat. In most music we listen to, across genres, classical, hip-hop, rock, jazz, there's this very strong sense of when the next one's going to happen. Now, composers play around with that a bit. We still know more or less when something's going to happen, but we don't know exactly what is going to happen. I brought an example of Stevie Wonder playing the drums. Many people don't know this, but he's a fantastic drummer, and he plays drums on most of his records. In this little cut I brought from "Superstition," what you're going to hear is him opening up the song on the high-hat, these are cymbals that he's playing with his right hand, and any other drummer, I think, to set this up, would basically go [beating], or maybe if they were more elaborate, [beating]. They'd give you a kind of repetition of the hit, and you'd know exactly when something's going to happen, and you'd be able to predict both when and what. Stevie don't do that. [Music: "Superstition"] He's playing around, and through the whole song, every time he goes through this pattern, he plays something slightly different. He hits the cymbals a little bit harder or a little bit softer. He adds extra beats, he takes a few beats away. It's sort of a game that he's playing with you, and you're both in on it. He's drawing you into this kind of musical game or puzzle of "What do you think I'm going to do next? Well, maybe I'll do it and maybe I won't."

Strainchamps: What is it that makes music pleasurable? It seems like an obvious question, I guess, because we all think music is pleasurable. But why? When Stevie Wonder plays the drums that way, why is it we like it?

Levitin: We now know, and it's pretty exciting, that there are pleasure centers in the brain that, when you have any pleasurable activity, these things become involved. And the neurons start firing, and they choreograph a kind of neurochemical release and uptake that allows dopamine to be squirted out through the brain. Dopamine is the feel-good neurotransmitter. Other neurochemical processes come into play to keep the dopamine in there a little longer than usual. Other neurons start firing that kind of stimulate your motor cortex and get you that tingly feeling--

Strainchamps: So you want to dance?

Levitin: Yeah, maybe. And it turns out that if you eat chocolate, or if you win a bunch of money, or you have an orgasm, these neuro-circuits come online, these pleasure centers. And they're the same ones that come online when you listen to music you like. There's no one piece of music that does it to everybody. The idea is that it's music that you like, and that will do it.

Strainchamps: Related to this, I wanted to ask you about groove, which you wouldn't think of as a technical scientific term, but you have a whole section of a chapter in there about what you call "groove." What is it?

Levitin: I guess it's not scientific because we can't define it. It's one of those things like, "I know it when I hear it," right? And it's also different for different people. I think what Pakistani audiences consider groove is different from what we consider groove. But really I'm using it to say something that makes you want to get up and dance, or tap your foot, or tap the foot in your mind. A lot of what that's about is this idea of anticipation. What's going on in your brain is that your cerebellum is trying to track the regularity of events in the world all the time. That's one of its jobs. It's synchronizing, and in part of the synchronization, it's trying to figure out what's going to happen next and when. The cerebellum's also connected to your motor cortex, so it sort of induces you to want to tap your finger, or snap your finger, or clap, or move your foot. I brought another example--I think "Superstition" has this great quality, but also I think "Tell Me Something Good" by Rufus has it and you'll hear that here. One of the reasons it has it is because it's not exactly the same each time. Each time you hear one of the instruments, there's some subtle difference in it. What that's doing is it's preventing your cerebellum and the rest of your brain from habituating to it. It's very easy to habituate to--you know, if your refrigerator's running in the background of your apartment--

Strainchamps: You tune it out, after a while, stop hearing it.

Levitin: Unless the sound changes.

Strainchamps: That has clear evolutionary advantages.

Levitin: Sure, because change indicates that something's about to happen that's different, and that could be a foe, it could be a predator, it could be a potential mate, it could be a food source; you have to know. So, because the music changes around, it's constantly keeping our brains involved. [music: "Tell Me Something Good" by Rufus] What you're hearing on the backbeat is a wah-wah guitar, so you hear the bass go boom, and then you hear a whack. Boom-whack, boom-whack, boom-whack. The whack is this guitar, and it's a little bit different every time, partly because the guitarist is really skilled, but also, you're dealing with a human being who's not able to behave or play like a machine.

Strainchamps: Another way composers and performers play with expectations has to do with chords, which chords they use. There's a story you tell about Joni Mitchell and some trouble she had with bass players. I wonder if you could tell that story.

Levitin: Bass players, typically in pop music, are playing the root of the chord. If I'm sitting at the piano keyboard and I play some cluster of notes, typically one of them is the theoretical root. The best way to describe it is sort of like the anchor point. It's the point that your ear is drawn to.

Strainchamps: It's home.

Levitin: Right, it's the harmonic home. Joni writes and invents her own chords and her own voicings, and she doesn't know any music theory. But bass players used to ask her, "What's the root of that chord?" because they wanted to know what to play. She didn't know, and so her producer, Henry Lewy, used to tell them and her what the root was, and then they would play it, but Joni felt that the music lost something as soon as they did play that note. The idea is that, uniquely among popular songwriters, she writes ambiguous chords, chords that could be interpreted in two or more different ways. A lot of pop writers, Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder and the Beatles, use ambiguous chords, but they usually fix them with the bass note. Joni wanted to not fix them, which meant that they existed more impressionistically; they couldn't be tied down. So when she finally met the late Jaco Pastorius, the bass player from Weather Report, she met a really kindred spirit because he didn't ask her what the root was and he didn't look for it. He danced around the ambiguity which allowed her music to maintain a more ethereal, and I think really, a more open-ended quality.

Strainchamps: Is that what gives her music that kind of floating quality?

Levitin: I think so. It's one of the things that allows you to hear her music differently each time you hear it, because it lives in that world of ambiguity. In a sense it's like a cubist painting where you might see a face from two different perspectives at once. What the cubists were trying to do there was mimic the brain, the idea that the brain can recognize your face dead-on, or in profile, or from all different angles. But in real life, because of this pesky thing called the fourth dimension, we can only see one view at a time. But the brain is able to process all these different views sequentially, and the cubists wanted to collapse across the fourth dimension and present, at one instant, both views of a face. I think what Joni was trying to do was the musical equivalent, to present both views of a musical chord progression. And Jaco allowed her to do that. [music: "Refuge of the Roads" by Joni Mitchell]

Strainchamps: Do you think our music is getting more complex over time? Because it strikes me that music like that, with these very unresolved chords, if you had played that two hundred years ago, people would have thought it was ugly.

Levitin: Well, I think that the world is getting more complex, certainly. That's the whole principle of entropy, isn't it? I think that in the grand scale, music's getting more complex. You have to look at the average and you have to look at trends, because I don't think Britney Spears is any more complex than Strawberry Alarm Clock was three or four years ago. But certainly there are trends of composers pushing the boundaries of what we consider cordant and discordant, and what we consider consonant and dissonant, and what we consider beautiful.

Strainchamps: I guess I was wondering whether you could say that music and our brains are evolving together, because the picture you've set up with the way composers play with expectations--every generation is going to build on the expectations of the previous generation's set-up, so every new generation is going to have to set the bar a little higher to do something new and more varied. In a way, our brains are carrying the entire history of music composition, and we're all evolving together.

Levitin: I think that's right, and I brought a little clip that I think demonstrates that. For people of our generation who grew up on the Beatles and Elton John and this style of music, you're right, if someone wants to continue in that tradition, they have to make it a little more complex, but they still have to be grounded in that tradition harmonically, and they have to throw in enough of the little nuggets of that, that you'll recognize that they're standing on the shoulders of these icons. So here, I brought you one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite new artists. His name is Ausley. This song, just for you, is called, "Oh No the Radio." He's a young guy, it's very modern and techno. The first time I heard that, I think I got a smile on my face from ear-to-ear, it was just indescribable. [music: "Oh No the Radio" by Ausley]

Fleming: Daniel Levitin is a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal. He talked with Anne Strainchamps. His book is called, “This Is Your Brain On Music: the Science of Human Obsession.”

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