By Tonya Clanton
As a neuroscientist, author and former member of Blue Oyster Cult, Daniel Levitin understands how music affects the brain. He has researched humans’ primal link with music and how it predates language. He is best known for This Is Your Brain on Music, a book in which he explores the connection between humans’ appreciation of music and its effects on our brains.
In his book The World in Six Songs, Levitin presents his theory that it is humans’ capacity to create art that separates us from other species. During an interview with 103.3 Asheville FM while in town, Levitin discussed the connection between humans’ ability to create art and the earliest forms of music preceding language.
The big idea is that the ability to create art really means that . . .we can depict something that never existed, which is fiction. . .we can depict emotions which might be otherwise hard to describe, and that representational quality. . . underlies an approach to problem solving and innovation that ultimately gave us civilization. . . the polio vaccine. . .bridges and courthouses.
Levitin says that Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences is “poking holes” in earlier theories of IQ that claimed that is was the “only quantifier of intelligence.” In musical intelligence alone there are subcategories of “rhythmic, melodic, arranging, and emotional communication” intelligences. He compares Neil Young, who is a “somewhat primitive singer,” to Pavarotti, who is classically trained. “Neil probably reaches more people than Pavarotti. . . because he has this unique emotional connection with his listeners.” During our interview he discussed the value of communication through emotional vocalizations, such as at the end of the song “Dreams” by the Cranberries.
He discussed the value of play in both speech and musical experimentation in child development. Toddlers engage with speech to learn about time, melody and rhythm. Their “musical babbling is parallel to linguistic babbling” in that they both play with sound. Toddlers “are learning what they need to do with their mouths, tongue and lips to replicate the sounds they’ve been hearing.” Levitin describes it as “experimenting with an input/output system. . . both of them are important ways for the developing brain to organize structure in their environment.”
Perhaps most interesting is the effect of communal musical experiences on our brain, such as the synchronization of brain waves within an audience and performer(s) during a music festival. The high that can be felt listening to the same song in a group may not be the same as listening to a record alone at home. Levitin describes “the synchrony of brain waves and the release of an interesting hormone called oxytocin which helps us to feel bonded to one another. That’s the same hormone that’s released between mothers and infants during nursing.”
Levitin compared the differences between his childhood background of learning music in a “very un-musical family” and Victor Wooten’s experience in a very musical family in which he played professionally at 5 years old. “It required different skills and. . . approaches, and it’s fun to play together because we come from such different backgrounds.” Levitin and Wooten played together on Sunday, April 7 at the Connect Beyond Festival, and Levitin also spoke on a panel, “The Power of Music,” that same evening at Diana Wortham, along with a musical journalist, storyteller, art historian, and local community art director.
The varied benefits of music on the brain remain an intriguing and relevant topic of conversation and research, and Daniel Levitin helps us understand how we are all connected through music. Listen to the full interview below.