This is your Brain on Beethoven! Daniel J. Levitin and Understanding the Neuroscience of Music

The relationship between music and science is more complicated (and beautiful) than you ever imagined

I love the interplay between art and science, because it often demonstrates my conviction that we have more than one set of “senses” by which we interpret reality. While our five physical senses–touch, taste, sight, hearing, smell–are critical for apprehending the physical universe, it is our “spiritual senses”–what the Hebrew and Christian scriptures refer to as the “eyes of the heart”–that enable us to comprehend the spiritual universe. Music is but one place where the interaction between the two is so evident… and so beautiful. We’ve reposted Pam Belluck’s excellent introduction to Levitin’s work and Cory Turner’s report on a practical application of it for those less interested in the technical jargon.  -GDS

To Tug Hearts, Music First Must Tickle the Neurons

By Pam Belluck • The New York Times

Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University in Montreal researches the effects of music on listeners. (Photo: Yannick Grandmont)

The other day, Paul Simon was rehearsing a favorite song: his own “Darling Lorraine,” about a love that starts hot but turns very cold. He found himself thinking about a three-note rhythmic pattern near the end, where Lorraine (spoiler alert) gets sick and dies.

The song has that triplet going on underneath that pushes it along, and at a certain point I wanted it to stop because the story suddenly turns very serious,” Mr. Simon said in an interview. “The stopping of sounds and rhythms,” he added, “it’s really important, because, you know, how can I miss you unless you’re gone? If you just keep the thing going like a loop, eventually it loses its power.”

An insight like this may seem purely subjective, far removed from anything a scientist could measure. But now some scientists are aiming to do just that, trying to understand and quantify what makes music expressive — what specific aspects make one version of, say, a Beethoven sonata convey more emotion than another.

The results are contributing to a greater understanding of how the brain works and of the importance of music in human development, communication and cognition, and even as a potential therapeutic tool.

Research is showing, for example, that our brains understand music not only as emotional diversion, but also as a form of motion and activity. The same areas of the brain that activate when we swing a golf club or sign our name also engage when we hear expressive moments in music. Brain regions associated with empathy are activated, too, even for listeners who are not musicians.

And what really communicates emotion may not be melody or rhythm, but moments when musicians make subtle changes to the those musical patterns…

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What Does It Mean to Be Musical?

by Daniel J. Levitin • McGill University

Musical ability is popularly regarded to be innate: one either is or is not born with musical talent. Increasingly, neuroscientists are collaborating with geneticists to understand the links between genes, brain development, cognition, and behavior (Ebstein et al., 2010; Posner et al., 2011). Music can be seen as a model system for understanding what genes can accomplish and how they relate to experience. On the practical side, identifying genetic components that underlie musical ability can also help us to predict who will succeed or, more interestingly, what types of instruction will be most successful for individuals according to their geneticcognitive profiles. In all domains, successful genotyping requires an accurately described phenotype. Unfortunately, the latter has not yet been accomplished for music, creating a significant hurdle to further progress. Part of the difficulty in describing the musical phenotype is its heterogeneity, the wide variety of ways in which musicality presents itself (Sloboda, 2008). My goal in this article is to review those factors that might be associated with the phenotype and to discuss definitions, measurement, and accuracy, three common obstacles in understanding the genetics of complex behavioral phenomena (Ebstein et al., 2010), with the hope that this may stimulate discussion and future work on the topic.

The Functional Neuroanatomy of Music

We now know that music activates regions throughout the brain, not just a single ‘‘music center.’’ As with vision, music is processed component by component, with specific neural circuits handling pitch, duration, loudness, and timbre. Higher brain centers bring this information together, binding it into representations of contour, melody, rhythm, tempo, meter, and, ultimately, phrases and whole compositions. The idea that music processing can be broken down into component operations was first proposed as a conceptual tool by cognitive theorists and has been confirmed by neuroimaging studies (Levitin and Tirovolas, 2009). The early distinction that music processing is right hemisphere lateralized and that language is left hemisphere lateralized has been modified by a more nuanced understanding. Pitch is represented by tonotopic maps, virtual piano keyboards stretched across the cortex that represent pitches in a low-to-high spatial arrangement. The sounds of different musical instruments (timbres) are processed in well-defined regions of posterior Heschl’s gyrus and superior temporal sulcus (extending into the circular insular sulcus). Tempo and rhythm are believed to invoke hierarchical oscillators in the cerebellum and basal ganglia. Loudness is processed in a network of neural circuits beginning at the brain stem and inferior colliculus and extending to the temporal lobes. The localization of sounds and the perception of distance cues are handled by a network that attends to (among other cues) differences in interaural time of arrival, changes in frequency spectrum, and changes in the temporal spectrum, such as are caused by reverberation. One can attain worldclass expertise in one of these component operations without necessarily attaining world-class expertise in others

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Amir Pinkney-Jengkens, 8, is learning trombone through Harmony Project, a nonprofit that provides musical instruments and instruction to children in low-income communities. Recent research suggests that such musical education may help improve kids' ability to process speech. (Annie Tritt for NPR)
Amir Pinkney-Jengkens, 8, is learning trombone through Harmony Project, a nonprofit that provides musical instruments and instruction to children in low-income communities. Recent research suggests that such musical education may help improve kids’ ability to process speech. (Annie Tritt for NPR)

This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain On Music

by Cory Turner • NPR

Musical training doesn’t just improve your ear for music — it also helps your ear for speech. That’s the takeaway from an unusual new study published in The Journal of Neuroscience. Researchers found that kids who took music lessons for two years didn’t just get better at playing the trombone or violin; they found that playing music also helped kids’ brains process language.

And here’s something else unusual about the study: where it took place. It wasn’t a laboratory, but in the offices of Harmony Project in Los Angeles. It’s a nonprofit after-school program that teaches music to children in low-income communities.

Two nights a week, neuroscience and musical learning meet at Harmony’s Hollywood headquarters, where some two-dozen children gather to learn how to play flutes, oboes, trombones and trumpets. The program also includes on-site instruction at many public schools across Los Angeles County.

Harmony Project is the brainchild of Margaret Martin, whose life path includes parenting two kids while homeless before earning a doctorate in public health. A few years ago, she noticed something remarkable about the kids who had gone through her program.

“Since 2008, 93 percent of our high school seniors have graduated in four years and have gone on to colleges like Dartmouth, Tulane, NYU,” Martin says, “despite dropout rates of 50 percent or more in the neighborhoods where they live and where we intentionally site our programs.”

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See also

Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling, by Paul J. Zak, PhD

Madness and the Muse: The Secrets of the Creative Brain, by Tom Bartlett

The Power of Perseverance: Advice to Young Artists from Jazz Legend McCoy Tyner of John Coltrane Quartet

The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature by Daniel J. Levitin

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin

‘Grace’ on Broadway: Faith, Doubt, Murder… and Redemption!

Former MN seminary student, Craig Wright, darkly explores a theology of grace, not in the pulpit, but on the stage. Four murder-suicide victims rise from the dead to explain the paradox of how a ‘Christian’ businessman with a vision for Gospel-based hotels sporting the slogan ‘Where would Jesus Stay,’ loses his faith while everybody around him is finding theirs.  Three reviews. (Spoiler alert: The Times review gives away more than the others.)


Faith explored with ‘Grace’ on Broadway

by Elysa Gardner, in USA TODAY

An expert cast illuminates Craig Wright’s darkly beautiful play.

Paul Rudd and Ed Asner in ‘Grace’

The word “faith” gets thrown around so loosely and cynically in public discourse — particularly at this stage in our election cycle — that it can be shocking when someone pauses to actually ask what it means, and why it has such power to inspire and incite.

These are questions at the pounding, probing heart of Grace (* * * 1/2 out of four), Craig Wright’s beautiful, vexing study of two very different but both profoundly damaged men and and a woman who is drawn to both of them.

In the play’s first Broadway production, which opened Thursday at the Cort Theatre, Paul Rudd is cast as Steve, who brings his wife to Florida on, literally, a prayer. The couple, who met in a Bible study group, have traveled from Minnesota to fulfill Steve’s vision of launching a chain of gospel hotels. Never mind that they’re flat broke, and their mysterious sole investor hasn’t paid them a cent in nearly a month.

“I’m not a knower, I’m a believer,” Steve tells Sam, their next-door neighbor, who has troubles of his own, having recently lost his fiancee in a car wreck that also left his face disfigured. A NASA scientist with an acerbic sense of humor, played by Michael Shannon, Steve appears to be Sam’s polar opposite; but they have a few things in common, including an affection for Sara, Steve’s sweet, sexy wife.

In fact, none of the characters in Grace — who also include a grizzled exterminator named Karl, drolly played by Ed Asner — are as different, or as simple, as they seem on paper. Wright, known to TV fans for his work on shows such as Six Feet Under and Lost, imbues them with a longing, both hilarious and tragic, to make sense of the world — that is, to know things that neither religion nor quantum physics can ever tell them conclusively…

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Craig Wright’s thoughtful ‘Grace’ makes an auspicious debut on Broadway

The Associated Press in The Washington Post

Michael Shannon with Kate Arrington, “we trust in his mistrust so deeply that it hurts.”

NEW YORK — The play “Grace” opens at the end, which is to say a final, terrible scene that leaves no loose ends. Someone is holding a gun. There are bodies on the stage.

How things ever got to this awful place is the subject of Craig Wright’s deeply thoughtful black comedy, which has a crackerjack cast under the impressive direction of Dexter Bullard. Somehow, as the cast builds back up to the already seen final scene during the course of the play’s life, the suspense builds.

Wright has bitten off quite a lot with just four actors and a script that runs a little over 90 minutes. What’s it about? Well, the nature of faith, forgiveness and human frailty. But it’s not nearly as preachy and heavy-handed as that sounds…

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‘Grace,’ With Paul Rudd and Michael Shannon, at Cort Theater

By  in The New York Times

Kate Arrington and Paul Rudd as wife and husband, and new Floridians, in Craig Wright’s “Grace.”

Even standing stock still, this guy vibrates with discomfort. It’s as if he’s paralyzed by cramps, not so much in his body but in his mind. Sam, who’s been scarred all over by life, has come to mistrust the world. And because Sam is played by Michael Shannon, we trust in his mistrust so deeply that it hurts. By the way, his instincts aren’t wrong.

Anyone doubting that Mr. Shannon is our reigning champion in embodying uneasy American manhood (well, him and Joaquin Phoenix) need only check out his portrait of the doomed Sam in Craig Wright’s “Grace,” which opened on Thursday night at the Cort Theater. This cool, strangulated little essay of a play, which also stars the very able Paul Rudd, deals with really big subjects seldom addressed onstage these days. (Its title refers not to a woman’s name but the theological concept…

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How Slavery Really Ended in America: The Power of Expertise in Culture Making

“Shall we now end the war and not eradicate the cause? Will not God demand this of us now [that] he has taken away all excuse for not pursuing the right?”

– Major General Benjamin Franklin Butler

Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washinton, and Samuel S. Jackson helped tell the remarkable story of America's first black regiment

Glory (1989) tells the story of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) leader of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment—the first all-black volunteer company in America.

However, it was the moral courage and legal brilliance of another Massachusetts military leader that changed the course of history and provided a compelling reminder of how culture change is accomplished, not only by courage and conviction, but also carefully honed expertise.

How Slavery Really Ended in America

Historian Adam Goodhart’s fascinating article in the New York Times recounts how “On May 23, 1861, little more than a month into the Civil War, three young black men rowed across the James River in Virginia and claimed asylum in a Union-held citadel. Fort Monroe, Va., a fishhook-shaped spit of land near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, had been a military post since the time of the first Jamestown settlers.”

A tiny island on the Chesapeake Bay would mark the beginning and the end of slavery in America (Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

By what could have been something akin to divinely orchestrated coincidence, the island where the slaves took refuge was the exact spot “where slavery first took root, one summer day in 1619, when a Dutch ship landed with some 20 African captives for the fledgling Virginia Colony.”

It would also become the spot where slavery first ended in America, not by the courage of Lincoln or other politicians, nor even the conviction of Abolitionists.   Instead, the unusual expertise of a lawyer pressed into military service provided the legal argument that would free not only these three men, but an entire nation of slaves.

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University Decision to Cut Tuition 10 Percent Every Year Sparks Debate Over College Costs

Fascinating discussion in the New York Times Opinion Page. Could cutting tuition be the key to reforming higher education? Seems unlikely, yet Sewanee (University of the South) is doing it!  And so far… it’s working.


Cutting Tuition: A First Step?

Sewanee is leading the way... back to the future?

Despite the outcry over high college costs, tuition rates are still going up. Princeton, Brown, Stanford and George Washington, for example, all announced increases in the last few weeks.

But a Tennessee college, the University of the South, better known as Sewanee, is reducing the cost to attend the school next year by 10 percent.

Tuition, fees, and room and board are all affected, with the overall cost falling from around $46,000 to about $41,500. The university said it will alter its student aid formula, but officials say no students will pay more next year than they pay now, and most will pay less.

Is this an example that other colleges might follow, or it is simply a good strategy for a school in Sewanee’s particular niche: “selective” but needing to stay competitive in a heated market? When is a tuition cut really a cut? What will it take for colleges to control their costs?

Read the Debaters’ Positions

Revisiting the Value of Elite Colleges: Why that Pricey School May Not Payoff Like You Hoped

By DAVID LEONHARDT in the New York Times

A decade ago, two economists — Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger — published a research paper arguing that elite colleges did not seem to give most graduates an earnings boost. As you might expect, the paper received a ton of attention. Ms. Dale and Mr. Krueger have just finished a new version of the study — with vastly more and better data, covering people into their 40s and 50s, as well as looking at a set of more recent college graduates — and the new version comes to the same conclusion. 

Given how counterintuitive that conclusion is and, that some other economists have been skeptical of it, I want to devote a post to the new paper.

The starting point is the obvious fact that graduates of elite colleges make more money than graduates of less elite colleges. This pattern holds even when you control for the SAT scores and grades of graduates. By themselves, these patterns seem to suggest that the college is a major reason for the earnings difference.

But Ms. Dale — an economist at Mathematica, a research firm — and Mr. Krueger — a Princeton economist and former contributor to this blog — added a new variable in their research. They also controlled for the colleges that students applied to and were accepted by.

Doing so allowed them to capture much more information about the students than SAT scores and grades do. Someone who applies to Duke, Williams or Yale may be signaling that he or she is more confident and ambitious than someone with similar scores and grades who does not apply. Someone who is accepted by a highly selective school may have other skills that their scores didn’t pick up, but that the admissions officers noticed.

Once the two economists added these new variables, the earnings difference disappeared… It’s still deeply surprising that choosing to go to, say, Xavier instead of Columbia may not affect your future earnings.

Alan Krueger’s last word:

“My advice to students: Don’t believe that the only school worth attending is one that would not admit you. That you go to college is more important than where you go. Find a school whose academic strengths match your interests and that devotes resources to instruction in those fields. Recognize that your own motivation, ambition and talents will determine your success more than the college name on your diploma.”

Read the entire article…