Exploring 'Your Brain on Music' Author Daniel Levitin wrote about how the brain responds to sound in This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. He spoke with Farai Chideya about his fascination with the effect music has on the mind.

Exploring 'Your Brain on Music'

Exploring 'Your Brain on Music'

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Author Daniel Levitin wrote about how the brain responds to sound in This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. He spoke with Farai Chideya about his fascination with the effect music has on the mind.

(Soundbite of song "All My Ex's Live in Texas")

Mr. GEORGE STRAIT: (Singing) All my ex's live in Texas.


Hey, maybe you don't like this song, but Daniel Levitin thinks even if you're hating it, what's going on in your brain right now is fascinating. It's the subject of his book, "Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession." And Levitin says like it or not, the difference between soulful music and awful noise is a matter of taste.

Mr. DANIEL LEVITIN (Author, "Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession."): I like to define music as organized sound because that's an inclusive definition. It leaves open the possibility that some musical style that we may not like can still be considered music by someone else - the idea that a composer puts together sounds in a particular order and has some intentionality to it, has some purpose. And it also includes some of the avant-garde classical music by Robert Normandeau, a French Canadian composer who I like very much who doesn't record with musical instruments. He goes out in the world and records sounds like trains going down the tracks and jackhammers, and he pitch-shifts them and shifts them in time and rhythm and makes little symphonies out of them.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Why is that music and not noise?

Mr. LEVITIN: Well, I think, you know, of course music's in the ear of the beholder, right? I think it's music because this person who composed it intended it to be. And I don't want to be ethnocentric and say it's only music if I like it. That's the kind of thinking that had my parents hating Hendrix and The Beatles. You know, a lot of people say that hip-hop isn't music, and I think that part of the trick there is to learn how to listen to it. Ludacris is one of my favorite rappers because vocally he does things that are as complex as what Frank Sinatra's doing. I defy almost anybody to sing along with a Frank Sinatra record. No matter how well you know and sing perfectly in time with him, the reason you can't is because he's so artful with the way he manipulates time. He sings a little early, he sings a little late. He stretches words out. And Ludacris does the same thing.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of song "Blueberry Yum Yum")

LUDACRIS: (Singing) You're playing, don't know what you got but my bag will put you stuff to shame.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (unintelligible) To shame.

LUDACRIS: (Singing) All the different kinds and other flavors. They don't mean a thing. You can't compare it, don't stare 'cause I got the ultimate Mary Jane.

Unidentified Group: Get you with me baby.

CHIDEYA: So Ludacris is someone who you see as manipulating time. What do you mean by him playing with time?

Mr. LEVITIN: Well, he is doing what musicians call syncopation. He's not just hitting his vocal notes where the drums are getting. He's putting it in between, in the cracks between drumbeats. And sometimes it's not exactly at dead center in between. So he's confounding your expectations of exactly where they're going to be.

And that's interesting. It's interesting to the brain because the brain is a giant prediction device. It tries to figure out what's going to happen next. And in general, the reason we like music, whether it's country or bluegrass or classic or jazz or hip-hop, it's because there is this unfolding over time.

There is a sequence of events, and almost always in music there is an aspect of certainty about when something's going to happen. That's what we call the beat or groove. We don't know always what is going to happen but to a large degree we know when. And a skillful composer and musician play around with this when sense a little bit, rewarding us sometimes, surprising as other times.

CHIDEYA: Personal question. I love, for lack of a better word, drum and bass music.

Mr. LEVITIN: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: And one reason I love it is because of the tambour, because it is like this sonic force and there are…

Mr. LEVITIN: It's textural music.

CHIDEYA: Very textural, and there is a lot of African influence in it as well. I mean, I think, if you look at people like LTJ Bukem…

Mr. LEVITIN: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: …who are blending African poly-rhythms with this completely high-tech electronic music.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: What distinguishes that kind of music that is electronic but also organic?

Mr. LEVITIN: Well, one of the things is that their beats tend to be a lot more regular. They're typically made by a machine so there - normally, I would say that music that grooves the best is played by live musicians, normally.

You get Stevie Wonder drumming and - or you listen to George Clinton, it's infectious. Part of the reason it's infectious is because it's imperfect.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. GEORGE CLINTON (Singer): (Singing) Hey, party.

Mr. LEVITIN: The brain is trying to predict when the beats will come, and it's being - the beats are being manipulated by human because humans are imperfect. They're not always coming exactly right. The brain likes this. The brain's a novelty detector. It becomes bored when things get too predictable, and we call that habituation.

In the case of drum and bass, the beats are perfectly predictable but what is unpredictable are the textures. There are all these higher order textures moving in and out of the music with a kind of a long cycle where synthesizers will come in and out, right? Different instruments you can't even name because they are like…

CHIDEYA: And samples sometimes.

Mr. LEVITIN: Yeah. Exactly. Right.

CHIDEYA: Local samples or a spoken word will come floating in and out. I heard Maya Angelou in an LTJ Bukem track, so.

Mr. LEVITIN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of song "Horizons")

Ms. MAYA ANGELOU (Poet): (Singing) A new hour, hold new chances, a new beginning. The horizon leans forward, offering you space to place new steps of change.

CHIDEYA: I'm not sure if she's ever heard it, but…

Mr. LEVITIN: You should get her on the show.

CHIDEYA: Exactly. And she's like, what is this?

(Soundbite of song, "Horizons")

CHIDEYA: Well, when you think of the book that you've written, "This is Your Brain on Music," it by its very title implies that music is psychoactive. What is the psychological effect of music both as we're listening to it and then as we consider its place in our lives?

Mr. LEVITIN: Well, listening to music has been shown now - we did some experiments in my laboratory that show that listening to music changes your brain chemistry. And we know that people use music the way they use drugs. They - a lot of people have a certain kind of music they use to get out of bed in the morning to help get them going, to get them started, to help them finish an exercise workout.

You come home at the end of the day, you reach for some music that will relax you, puts you in a good mood. And there are neurochemical changes that are associated with different kinds of music. Now it's not that one kind of music changes everybody's brain chemistry the same way. Everybody has their own taste and their own preferences.

What one person calls heavy metal another person might call soothing classic rock. But when you've got the music dialed in that you like, it will put you in a good mood, put you in a bad mood, propel you.

CHIDEYA: Daniel Levitin, thank you so much.

Mr. LEVITIN: Thanks for having me on the show, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Daniel Levitin is the author of "This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession."

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