Everyone’s an expert in music, even if you can’t carry a tune, says Daniel Levitin. In addition to being a neuroscientist and author, he’s a former a session player and recording engineer for artists including Stevie Wonder and Blue Oyster Cult.
“Any five year old can tell you when there's a chord that's out of sequence or a note that's out of tune. All of us are expert listeners. We learn music by osmosis, by exposure, whatever our culture. We all develop this knowledge of music implicitly.
“We have this wonderful new stuff in the prefrontal cortex (of our brains) that only humans have that I call the musical brain. (It) gave us things like self-consciousness, and an ability to represent things that aren't there. These are uniquely to human abilities and yet they fall along a continuum with all the other animals who have pieces of it.
“What we used to teach in psychology, in linguistics, was that one way you could distinguish homo sapiens from all the other species was our language. But in the last couple of years (we’ve learned) the brain mechanisms that were (thought to be) so special in humans are there in birds. They haven't learned how to exploit the capacity, but it’s there.”
Dr. Levitin’s lab maps the brain, but most of his energy and time is spent looking at actual thoughts and mental processes.
“I'm interested in things like how memory works, why we remember some parts of songs and not others. We found that there are direct connections from the inner ear to primitive brain regions, direct connections meaning that it goes there as well as to the higher cognitive human centers.
“This may be the reason why patients with Alzheimer's, when they can no longer remember their own name or the name of their spouse or what year it is, can still remember all the lyrics to a song they knew when they were 14 years old. It may be why music can sneak its way in and reach people who are in various states of psychological trauma or distress, walled off from their emotions.
“There's this debate about whether (humanity’s) music or language came first. It seems pretty obvious to me if we look at our animal cousins. Chimpanzee pant-hoots. Humpback whales. The vocalizations of many animal species are more music-like than they are language-like, much closer to music than speech. They deal with relatively fixed repertoires that vary in pitch and in dynamics and rhythm -- which is what music is.”
Dr. Levitin reminds us that from an evolutionary perspective going back tens of thousands of years, music was always participatory.
“And there was lots of movement. In the majority of the world's languages, the word for music and for dance is the same word. It wasn't experts putting on a show for the rest. I think we've lost a sense that music is for everybody. Most cultures in the world today, everybody is making music together.”
What was powerful enough to pull this musician out of the sound studio and into a research lab?
“The thing about neuroscience as a field is that we're really at the beginning of it. Over the last two or three thousand years going back to Aristotle, most of the great mysteries that puzzled the ancient philosophers have been answered. The one thing we don't really know very much about is the human brain. It’s like the final frontier.”