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Jeff Moehlis: This Is Your Brain On Music

Daniel Levitin talks about the relationship between the brain and music at SAGE Center lecture

Ever wonder why sex, drugs and rock-‘n’-roll seem to go together so well? It turns out that music engages emotional centers in the brain that mediate reward and arousal, the same centers that are active when one is on certain drugs or having an orgasm.

Cognitive psychologist, record producer and best-selling author Daniel Levitin talked about this and many other fascinating topics at the intersection of music and science in a presentation titled “This Is Your Brain On Music” at UCSB on Thursday, a lecture sponsored by the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind. He wrote a bestselling book with the same title, plus a book titled The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature.

Levitin was in several San Francisco bands starting in the late 1970s, then got involved with producing and sound engineering for the likes of Blue Oyster Cult, Chris Isaak, and Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers.

When a recording engineer for Carlos Santana didn’t show up one day, Levitin got a chance to fill in (he joked that before this his main job was to light incense in the studio). During Santana’s guitar solo, Levitin got goosebumps, which led him to question what was going on in his brain — and in Santana’s brain. This ultimately led him into cognitive science and his current gig as a professor at McGill University.

Much of Levitin’s lecture was on musical expertise. He claimed that all of us are expert music listeners, able to determine when a wrong note is played, and to quickly recognize a piece of music even if it is in an arrangement that we have never heard before. He demonstrated this by playing very short audio clips for the audience. Interestingly, some people identified the quick clips by the song, and others by the artist, but nearly everyone could recognize them almost immediately.

He then argued that musical expertise has many components, including rhythm, pitch, playing an instrument, composing, arranging and listening. This diversity makes it unlikely that there is a “musical gene” that endows expertise on certain individuals. Sure, there might be some genetic predisposition, but the qualities that ultimately lead to expertise are memory, attention, will power, belief in oneself and an attitude of treating failures as a learning opportunity.

And then there is practice. Levitin is an advocate for the 10,000 hours theory that expertise in any field takes 10,000 hours of practice. He argued that even for an apparent outlier such as Wolfgang Mozart, who started composing symphonies when he was 5 years old, the theory still applies. In particular, Mozart’s early works are not held in nearly as high regard as his later works, written after the 10,000 hour milestone presumably had been passed. Indeed, he asked, “If Mozart died at 10 years old, would we know about him nowadays?” Probably not.

Levitin also made a compelling argument that the music that most appeals to us is at the “sweet spot” between being familiar and novel. This allows us to experience reward for predicting what is coming next, plus offers enough surprises to keep things interesting.

A cynic might argue that analyzing music from a scientific perspective, as Levitin does, misses the point, that music is just meant to be listened to and enjoyed. However, for many of us, this gives an even greater appreciation for the musical experience.

Whatever your perspective, enjoy the music!

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.

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