Indre Viskontas: What Can Neuroscience Teach Us About Music? How do you decide between two different life passions? After years of struggling to choose, neuroscientist and operatic soprano Indre Viskontas learned that science and opera can inform the other.

Indre Viskontas: What Can Neuroscience Teach Us About Music?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


On the show today, Wisdom In Hindsight...


RAZ: ...How some of the most meaningful things we learn can take a really long time to reveal themselves.

INDRE VISKONTAS: I've been singing since I was - since I can remember. And I remember my first audition. I was probably like 6 or 7, and I found my people (laughter). So these were singers who were really interested in drama, who were really interested in acting. You know, we got to do operas right from the beginning.

When I was 11, I was an altar boy in the Canadian Opera Company's production of "Tosca." I got to stay up late. I get to go into this opera house. They paint my makeup on. They put me in this costume. I get to run around while doing something that I absolutely love. And then they give me a check. So that's how I - that was really what solidified my love for music.

RAZ: This is Indre Viskontas. Indre's an opera singer.

VISKONTAS: And I also work for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I help musicians use the tools of neuroscience to practice more effectively.

RAZ: So an opera singer and a neuroscientist.

VISKONTAS: OK, so in high school, I got much more interested in science in addition to music. And I discovered Oliver Sacks. And so when I graduated from high school, I had to make a choice between what I was going to do next in university. And my mother is a conductor and a musician. And she basically said, go get a medical degree (laughter). It's really hard - it's really hard to make a living as a musician.

And, you know, we didn't - I did not come from a wealthy family. We were immigrants, and we had no money. And so whatever I was going to do in university, I had to pay for it myself.

RAZ: So Indre went to school to study psychology and then onto graduate school, learning about how memory works, how brains recover from surgery. And she kept practicing music, but she did it kind of in secret.

VISKONTAS: Because I felt like, look; all these other PhD students are working really hard. You know, they never leave the lab. And if I, like, take that hour every day, like, they're just - they're not going to think I'm serious. And so, you know, I felt like that was my dirty little secret.

RAZ: That must've been hard to keep up.

VISKONTAS: Yeah. And, you know, I think there comes a time in every grad student's life when they realize, like, OK, like, now I just need to do - I need to just do this until I can get it done and then - and because the competition is so stiff. And so when I really immersed myself into the work of being a neuroscientist, you know, I did fine, and I got it done, but I - it was like the light inside my soul dimmed a little. Like, it was like I was selling something, and it just didn't - I got really angry. I got really irritable, and I didn't like who I became.

RAZ: So after Indre finished her PhD, she enrolled in a master's program in music. She spent a summer in Italy, performed the classics, completely dedicated herself to music. And honestly, she was kind of relieved to step away from hard science. That is, until she realized that neuroscience could actually make her a better singer.

VISKONTAS: So I'm going to say something I probably shouldn't say, but I'm going to say it anyway. The person that was teaching vocal pedagogy, I felt really did not know how the brain learns and remembers. And the things that I was taught in that class, like, made my eyebrows stand up in my forehead. Like, absolutely, that's not the right way to teach singing.

And so, you know, that made me think, well, wait a minute. If, like, these experts in this amazing conservatory don't know the basic fundamentals of, you know, how we learn motor skills, like, isn't there a way that neuroscience could really help musicians? Maybe bringing in some neuroscience would make it easier for me to get better faster as a musician.

And then I stumbled across this one paper by Valorie Salimpoor and her colleagues and Robert Zatorre at McGill.


VISKONTAS: Because, you see, in the Salimpoor paper, they show that there are two regions of the brain that mediate getting the chills from music, and they tracked dopamine in these regions. They're the caudate and the nucleus accumbens.

RAZ: Indre Viskontas continues on the TED stage.


VISKONTAS: Now you can think of the caudate as your parent. It tells you that your behavior has consequences. It tracks how the things that you see and hear and observe and do have outcomes. It sets up the expectation of a reward of pleasure, and it ensures that in the future, you will behave in such a way that you will seek reward and avoid the things that led to punishment.

The caudate is awash with dopamine when you are leading up to the special moment that will give you the chills. But when you get to the moment that gives you the chills, there's a dopamine spike in your nucleus accumbens. Your nucleus accumbens is your BFF. It's your best friend for life because more dopamine in the nucleus accumbens correlates with a bigger high.

The intensity of the chills that you feel from music depends on how much dopamine there is in your nucleus accumbens. But the number of times you get the chills, or if you get them at all, depends on the amount of dopamine in your caudate. That's what I learned. That's what it means to be musical.

RAZ: In just a moment, we'll hear more from Indre Viskontas about how she learned to tap into the brains of her audience to deliver a more powerful, more emotional performance. Stay with us. On the show today, Wisdom In Hindsight. I'm Guy Raz. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Wisdom In Hindsight, ideas about the lessons we learn from sometimes unexpected places. And before the break, we were talking with Indre Viskontas, a neuroscientist who was training as an opera singer.

VISKONTAS: My teacher used to say to me in my lessons all the time, Indre, you need to focus on all the notes leading up to the high note. You can't just think about the high note. And I'm like, no, that's wrong because if I miss the high note, no one's going to pay me. Like, that's the money note. They call it the money note. And so, you know, I would listen to her, and I'd try to do what she said, but I never really got it until I read this paper.

RAZ: A research paper that showed there was real science to back up what her teacher had been saying.


VISKONTAS: The intensity of the chills that you feel from music depends on how much dopamine there is in your nucleus accumbens. But the number of times you get the chills or if you get them at all depends on the amount of dopamine in your caudate.

And then it clicked.


VISKONTAS: That's what I learned. That's what it means to be musical.

And I was like, that's exactly right. If I don't set it up right, the audience, first of all, is not going to have that pleasurable experience of getting the chills, and, you know, I'm probably not being very musical because I'm just essentially not - I'm not creating this tension that eventually will be released. And it changed the way I perform.

So, you know, I used to be, like, ah, I'm nervous about the high note. Got to get to the high note. Boom - zoop (ph) up there. And now I'm like, I'm going to take my time (laughter). Even before I start to sing, I'm going to stand here until the silence is uncomfortable because what I'm doing is I'm setting up in the brains of the audience, you know, this desire for me to do my job. And it makes my job as a singer so much easier.

And got rid of so much anxiety, too. That was the interesting thing. Like, I used to have so much anxiety when I was standing in front, you know, about to start to sing, thinking, like, are they going to like me? Are they going to like me? Are they going to like me? And then, like, now I just stand there, and I'm going to - like, the longer I stand here, the more you're going to like me.

RAZ: Huh. So neuroscience helped you become a better performer. But it also sounds sounds to me like music brought more joy to your work in neuroscience, right?

VISKONTAS: Yeah. I mean, it absolutely goes both ways. Not only did music make me a better neuroscientist, neuroscience made me a better musician - you know, it's both. And...


VISKONTAS: ...You know, I think that, you know, sometimes we just get caught up in - we get so fixated on one way of looking at things, and that just limits us. And so, you know, when it comes to trying to think of what to study now as a neuroscientist, I've started to really always go back to, is whatever I find going to be interesting to, you know, people - my friends, people I care about, like other musicians. And if the answer is, it's only going to be interesting to the other cognitive neuroscientists at the conference, it's not - I don't want to do it. It's not something that I want to spend my time doing right now.

But if it's something that when I finally get the results, I can share with my musician friends or, you know, I can share with my educator friends or I can share with the lay public, and it's going to be interesting to everyone or at least to a subset of those people that are not also cognitive neuroscientists, then I think it's worth doing.


VISKONTAS: (Singing in Italian).

RAZ: That's Indre Viskontas, neuroscientist and soprano, singing a piece from the opera "La Traviata."


VISKONTAS: (Singing in Italian).

RAZ: And if we wait for it, I think we'll get a spike of dopamine - right now.


VISKONTAS: (Singing in Italian).


Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.