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Getting a Sense of How We React to Music

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Keith Lockhart, conducting in a white shirt at a 2003 Super Bowl rehearsal. i

Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, conducting in 2003. This weekend, he'll wear a vest with sensors to monitor his reaction to the music. Brian Bahr/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Keith Lockhart, conducting in a white shirt at a 2003 Super Bowl rehearsal.

Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, conducting in 2003. This weekend, he'll wear a vest with sensors to monitor his reaction to the music.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

McGill University neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin will attach sensors to Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart, five musicians and 50 audience members. The goal: measure physiological responses to the music.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Scientists have speculated that music has some kind of harmonic and harmonious effect on the human body. Now they hope to measure it. This afternoon at Boston Symphony Hall, Maestro Keith Lockart and several of his musicians of the Boston Pops will be wearing sensors as they perform.

Fifty adults and children in the audience will also wear sensors, all to measure their physiological response to the music for scientists from Montreal's McGill University.

We're joined now from Symphony Hall by Daniel Levitin, a professor of psychology and music at McGill. Professor, thanks very much for begin with us.

Professor DANIEL LEVITIN (McGill University, Montreal): It's nice to be here.

SIMON: And Maestro Keith Lockhart. Maestro, thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. KEITH LOCKART (Maestro, Boston Symphony Hall): Hi Scott, it's a thrill.

SIMON: You'll be conducting the Marriage of Figero and some music inspired by Dr. Seuss. Is this your selection or did the scientists say this will work best for us?

Mr. LOCKART: I had no idea that this concert was going to be used in that study.

SIMON: Well, Dr. Levitin?

Prof. LEVITIN: The program couldn't have been better chosen in that there'll be some familiar music, presumably familiar to the musicians and the audience, the Mozart, and some music that most people won't have heard before. And so we'll have a nice scientific control there for familiar versus unfamiliar. And I believe that all the pieces performed have the kind of emotional trajectory that one gets from all good music.

SIMON: Without getting graphic, Dr. Levitin, where you gonna hook the maestro?

Prof. LEVITIN: We're going to have...

Mr. LOCKART: I don't know the answer to this question, so I'm a rapt audience at this point.

Prof. LEVITIN: We're going to be outfitting the maestro with a specially constructed jacket. It's made out of a Lycra-Spandex kind of material. It's really a shirt, more than a jacket. And they'll be sensors on his chest and his forearms. And the musicians, five of the musicians, will also be wearing a jacket like this. The sensors are really not that much different from what you might use at the gym if you were on a treadmill or something and you put a little finger cuff on or an armband and wanted to track your heart rate.

SIMON: Professor, when you're measuring human sensory response, I guess, are we wrong to think of that as measuring emotion? I mean just 'cause somebody sweats more?

Prof. LEVITIN: Well, all of the things that we're measuring, the psycho-physiological measurements are product of the brain. Now, ideally, we would put everybody in a brain scanner, a PET scanner or an FMRI machine...

Mr. LOCKART: You can't conduct in that, though.

Prof. LEVITIN: You can't move in those.

SIMON: You think that jacket's uncomfortable. Try the PET scan, yeah.

Prof. LEVITIN: But what we do have are different markers that are a product of the brain. And we've learned something about how to read them. So we can't read somebody's thoughts and we don't know exactly what they're feeling, but we can see the broad landscape of their reactions.

SIMON: What do you look at, for example? I mean, if I see someone smiling, I assume they're happy, but surely you're on to something more scientific than that.

Prof. LEVITIN: What we look for are particular changes that we've become familiar with in both the rate of change and the type of change that we see in, as you say, sweating activity or heart rate, pulse, respiration, body temperature, muscle activity. We'll be measuring the conductor's and the musicians' muscle tension. And we've learned to pick out certain signatures that correlate with the emotion.

SIMON: Question for both of you, beginning with you, Keith. You've conducted the Marriage of Figero before, right?

Mr. LOCKHART: Thirty, forty times, probably, yes.

SIMON: So Dr. Levitin, isn't it possible for a piece of music to greatly move an audience, but it's not that the conductor and the musicians, for that matter, don't appreciate the emotional overtones of the music but they've been to those emotional places before and they're a little more businesslike about it?

Prof. LEVITIN: It's a great question, Scott. For one thing, from the scientific standpoint, that's why we have the familiar pieces balanced by the unfamiliar. In case there's a difference there that you could imagine that maybe the musicians are somewhat jaded or they're going through the motions. But I really want to emphasize that I don't think it's the case that the members of the Boston Symphony or Maestro Lockart are gonna be jaded, even after 40 or 50 or 100 performances of a piece. It's their job to be aroused...

Mr. LOCKART: I don't know if I would say jaded, but I would say that one's emotional, I mean I don't have empirical measurement on this, I have only instinct of 25 years of doing it. One's emotional response does change with repeated performances. And another interesting thing from a conductor's point of view, I was told by one of my teachers years ago, it's not your job to feel things, it's your job to make your audience feel things.

You know what I'm interested, I wanna see what the differences is between the live audience and the taped audience.

SIMON: Well, there's an audience that'll see it on a video tape in Montreal, right?

Prof. LEVITIN: This is one of the most exciting parts for me, too. Because, you know, you look at human behavior, people spend lots of money on concert tickets. And one could argue that listening in your living room, if you've got any kind of a stereo system or a surround system people have now, home theaters, it's some more pristine audio environment, you're always in the sweet spot. You don't have to pay for parking. The person next to you is not opening cough drop wrappers. Nobody's coughing. And you have the visual image that you would never get in the concert hall: close-ups of the conductor, of the musicians...

SIMON: But can't get those nice little Boston Pops key rings unless you actually go to Symphony Hall.

Mr. LOCKHART: Well, that's true. But actually, you know, from my, on a somewhat serious note from my point of view, what we have left to sell in the arts is the live performance experience, the visceral thrill of being in a hall with musicians actually making the product, and also the thrill of experiencing that with other people, with friends, with strangers, partly because there's the thrill of knowing it'll never exactly be the same, it's a moment in time that's not really capturable.

And I would love to see that there's a huge difference in emotive response...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LOCKHART: ...between these two audiences, because it would help prove my point.

Prof. LEVITIN: All of us on the science side are musicians, too. I think, really, our goal is to try and understand more about music and the brain, the intersection of the two. You know, music is a unique human quality. It's characterized by its ubiquity and its antiquity. By that I mean there's no culture that we know of that lacks music. And for all of recorded history, music has been part of our species and part of its life.

The human brain, apparently, evolved along with music. Music and the brain co-evolved. Learning about one can teach us something about the other.

SIMON: Neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin of McGill University, and the conductor of the Boston Pops, Keith Lockhart speaking with us from Symphony Hall in Boston.

Gentlemen, it's been wonderful to talk to both of you.

Prof. LEVITIN: It's nice to be here.

Mr. LOCKHART: Thank you, Scott.

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