Daniel Levitin - neuroscientist and musician


Daniel Levitin worked with Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison and Santana and knows a lot about music, except one - where it comes from.

Early in the morning, students gradually fill one of the rooms at New York University, where he will lecture on music perception. First came two girls - one with nails painted black, the other - a hooligan vintage boots with high heels.

Them - a young man with turquoise hair. It is easy to imagine how they would react to Professor Daniel Levitin, lecturer 40-odd years, with a mobile phone on your wrist, dressed in black jeans and a tie with a crazy pattern - that there is, the fiber of wood? Or unrealistic magnification bacteria?

Levitin lecture based on his new book, "Music and the Brain" (This is Your Brain on Music), begins with a forced metaphor: there is something about the lake, a boat and cork pops out of the bottle. So neuroscientist tries to explain to students the amazing sensitivity eardrums - "just a couple of patches of skin, taut on the bone and swing back and forth." "All that we hear, - he continued - is interpreted by the brain, which based its conclusions on information about swinging eardrums, how to hit him sound waves, frequency and pitch. How much they fluctuate and where exactly is vibrating sound on the webbing? "

It seems Levitin felt the audience loses interest, he quickly strikes the keys of a synthesizer sound initial sounds of the legendary Stevie Wonder song «Superstition»."What do you hear?" - He asks.

"The Guitar" - a student of the votes cast. "In fact - intervenes other - it was a Clavinet.""That's right, Stevie Wonder plays the clavinet, which makes the guitar sound like - is responsible Levitin. - Stevie actually wrote this song for Jeff Beck, guitarist, who had not bothered to record it. Stevie was very upset about it and wrote it himself - he wanted to get a signature sound "by Jeff Beck."

Levitin Now listen carefully. In fact, Daniel Levitin is so close to becoming a rock star as he can be close to the scientist. He played with Van Morrison and the group Steve Miller Steve Miller Band. Working with Wonder on compiling a collection of his greatest hits, he got right to call Stevie's name.

In the 1980s, he was a producer and sound engineer, has worked with musicians from the group Blue Oyster Cult and the Grateful Dead, with Chris Issaakom, and Santana (who are less willing to admit it) with an accompanying group of Whitney Houston.

However, fans honored in Levitin's not a rock musician, and neurobiology. Since he wrote the book "Music and the Brain," Levitin became fashionable speaker. The book, written by a living spoken language, only an overview of the emerging "neuroscience of music." It explores everything - from the genetic base of musical talent, which does not seem to exist, to sexual attraction Keith Richards.

After reading the book Levitin, David Byrne even visited Canada McGill University, where Daniel directs the Laboratory of musical perception, knowledge and expertise. And that no one thought Levitin interest only baby boomers, it should be noted that Byrne had brought parties to the Montreal group Arcade Fire (attention Boomers: postart is the most popular indie-rock band in the world today.)

What is the sound department

Everyone in New York Levitin seemed sociable, curious and calm, relaxed person. We went with him to the department store Barney? S, where Levitin wanted to buy a jacket for her next appearance on Fox News. When he appealed to the seller of the quick-service department, while meeting business tone on your cell, I thought that the newly resurrected his earlier image created specifically for the public - tired and irritable music mogul.

It is clear that Levitin is as easy to talk about the psychology of the consumer society, as well as about neuroscience. He regularly lectures at companies Amazon and Microsoft, which almost always being asked what the background music can be the engine of trade."One study - says Levitin - found that when the liquor stores include classical music, their customers to buy more expensive alcohol. Good to selected background music in the department of men's clothing department store Barney? S? They tried to pick up something and youth great - he says, listening to what he calls "musical wallpaper" - in this case a kind of light funk. - I do not think it was right. "No one hired him as a consultant on the issue. Maybe Barney? s willing to do that?

Levitin has worked as an expert on the music for the company Nissan. "It's interesting - says Levitin. - They want to make the driving experience a fun and safe (as possible), and asked the question: Is there a type of music that helps people to keep vigilance on the road? "

Nissan has generously paid for Levitin, to hear the answer that most people know and like: the type of music will vary from person to person. But Levitin is still working with Nissan. The company is working on a program that will, based on the details of the biography and the human response to short music segments, determine what music is preferred for a specific buyer. So, without thinking: that he will recommend to keep the attention on the road during rush hour for such a driver like me - mom 30ish, which drives a Subaru and loves to read? Levitin at the moment.

"Someone like Raylanda Couder, his music has a good beat, but no pressure. It also has the intellectual component. " It turns out that long before Nissan hired him, Levitin was trying to develop a theory that will predict what kind of music like a person.

Memory Games

Some of the intellectual exercises Levitin made a major contribution to the development of neuroscience. For example, a student branch of cognitive psychology at Stanford University (which he gave up in 1978 to launch his musical career, and to re-record 14 years later), Levitin asked people from the campus and asked them to sing their favorite songs in his laboratory. To his surprise - and also - most neatly fall into the initial notes of genuine recordings of songs and sang them at the right pace. When he lost the recording of their singing along with the original version of your favorite songs (most often it was a Madonna song «Like a Virgin»), both versions were virtually simultaneous.

For years, cognitive scientists believed that memory restores only the main content of what happened, and the logic adds detail. However, the study Levitin made them reconsider the previously discredited theory of "cassette tapes," according to which the memory encodes human experience with near-perfect accuracy.

"If you've heard the song a thousand times, you will remember not only the overall content of the song, but every part of it, it will pave the deep imprint in your memory.And when you are asked to remember it, you will hear in your mind loud chorus of thousands of people singing in the real world. Thus, it is very difficult to sing it wrong. "

Music is like a drug

Most studies Levitin - an attempt to answer the question of why music affects us emotionally and why we love the music we love. Levitin first to prove that music increases the amount of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens of the brain that is responsible for feelings of pleasure centers and remuneration. "You can say, well, what? - Says Levitin. - But it shows us that there is neuroanatomical confirmation simple thing: when people say they love the music, because listening to her pleasure at the biological level, this is true. Nice music activates the same areas of the brain, which are included while taking heroin and opium. "

Window to another world

Scientific work for Levitin - a way to understand the power that music had on him when he was a kid and listened to Simon and Garfunkel, Tchaikovsky. "For me, music has been a window into an exotic world, - he says. - I was a white kid from the middle class, living in the suburbs. When I first heard the song Johnny Cash «I Walk the Line», to me it sounded as if she has brought to us from outer space. I have heard the soundtrack from another world. "

Levitin always wanted to play the electric guitar, but his parents were convinced that he be engaged in this business, "in a week wicked will sit on my lap and feeding me heroin and I could begin to vote for Democrats. All this was unacceptable. " As a result of a serious guitar Levitin started just reaching adulthood, but then he threw Stanford and some time not maintain a relationship with their parents. "In my family, - he jokes, - it is believed that the fetus can exist independently only when he received a medical institution."

Levitin started going to listen to a rock band and was in the group The Mortals, which had the fans in San Francisco. The Mortals could not afford to hire a producer, one of the members of the group wanted to do grinding and forming sound, besides neobkurennym Levitin was the only party to do so properly. Thus began his career as an engineer and producer recording.

He recorded music with Stevie Wonder. He played billiards with Tori Amos in the studio, where she knew no one, and was able to successfully correct situation in the day when Rick James came there with dynamite strapped to the body, threatening to blow up the studio if he does not return the software videofonogrammy. Studio has done a favor.Levitin was earning good money, and held a prominent position in the studio Columbia Records. But even at the peak of his career he producer and producer Sandy Pearlman, group manager of The Clash and Blue Oyster Cult, went to Stanford University and Berkeley, where he attended the morning lecture on neuroscience, and returned to Los Angeles for a recording session, which begins in mid-day . "I just wanted to understand how the world works," - says Levitin. He chose neurobiology almost by accident: I just knew one of the professors who taught the subject, and I thought that it was empty and Pearlman for lectures as an auditor.

In the late 1980s, the recording industry came to multinational corporations, the business started to change, and Levitin decided to finish his training at Stanford, where he began exploring the musical memory of man. From there he moved to the University of Oregon, where he finished graduate school in psychology, eager to continue the study of how the mind perceives music. "It's interesting to rotate in a circle of smart people, - he says. - You can find a lot of smart people in the business. But there are many more in the academic world. " When he was visited by David Byrne, the musician Levitin showed one of his most intriguing experiments. A pianist played Chopin's Nocturne for Piano Disklavier Pro, recording the song you play on it, and reproducing it note for note.

Using a computer, the pianist was able to reduce the rate of expressive speech, eliminating subtle variable speed and volume of sound and usage of the pedal. As a result, the final version was played entirely robotic.

Then he slowly began to add expression and even exaggerate it.

It turned out that each person for whom Levitin played different versions of the play, was able to place them in the right order - from least to most expressive. The result is difficult to understand: who would have thought that the emotional component of a piece of music devoid of personality? "Moreover, - says Levitin - amazing how time changes music sound in the physical world - sometimes by a little as less than a millisecond - affects the emotional response of the brain. Why Time is so powerfully associated with emotions?" - He asks. And what is the answer? "I do not know" - says Levitin, who is not afraid to admit that much of the music has remained a mystery to him.

From where does the melody?

Some researchers, such as the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, have argued that the music - it's a frivolous byproduct of the nervous system for speech. But Levitin believes that music is not a random cognitive factor.

"We do not know how the perception of music encoded in the genes, but if this is true, then the music is the solution of an important biological and evolutionary problems," - says Levitin. He points out that in most languages ​​the word "dance" and "music" sound the same. And dancing, and music can be, as well as hunting, the expression values ​​of men. "Dancing around the fire for hours, man could demonstrate physical and sexual superiority and their cognitive flexibility.

Musical talent can serve the same purpose as the peacock's tail, - decoration, which does not do anything except a demonstration of extravagance. It is like to say: I have so many food sources that I can spend it all on the metabolic energy to the show, so choose me. " For anyone who finds it unlikely that the music can serve as a sexual advantage, Levitin points to Keith Richards: "This guy is terrible, as a mortal sin, but for many women it is a sex symbol. When you see this behavior, then, as a biologist, you know that it is not only the culture and society. There's something deeper. " There was a time when Levitin wanted to be famous, like Keith Richards woke up in the night with the song, fully formed in his mind, jumped out of bed to write it down, sure, that at last it was his finest hour.

He needed a few hours to realize that he did not write the great American hit. Bob Dylan did it: a song called «Tangled up in Blue». "A part of your brain that evaluates novelty product, does not always work while you sleep" - Daniel says sadly.

It is not long throw Levitin career musician - he was a session musician for a long time at a recording studio and is still playing with a Montreal rock band. It's a group of scientists who call themselves The Diminished Faculties.

On the question of what music he would like to answer first? Levitin is responsible in terms of the actor: "How to write a song that will be just as good as the ones that people love to sing and generations, how to find the right balance of melody and rhythm?"

A scientific question about the music, which he would like to answer? "Why is the sequence of sounds in humans evokes an emotional response? Why does this music and screaming cats and vehicle sirens - no? Why does this one music and the other not? "Despite all the studies and laboratory experiments, Levitin says," I do not know whether it is knowable. " Fortunately, this does not prevent him from trying to find out.