Baby, kick your shoes off, relax, and, uh, put on a record. That’s the way Tony Bennett sang it in the old chestnut “What Are You Afraid Of?” That’s the way music and sex have been intertwined since … well, how far back does this stuff go? That’s the kind of question record producer-turned-McGill University psychologist Daniel J. Levitin winds up speculating about in his bestseller This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Dutton Adult, $24.95, 320 pp.). Levitin spoke to us the other day in a far-flung conversation that touched on Darwin, the human genome and why Keith Richard gets groupies.
Metro Times: If we spin the radio dial up and down the spectrum, an awful lot of the music is dedicated to sex, lust, courtship, some variation. You suggest this isn’t just a coincidence.
Daniel Levitin: One place to start talking about the connection is to think about what the evolutionary origins of music might be. This way of thinking in terms of evolution starts with the premise that anything that we find ubiquitously throughout human society and human culture may have some genetic or evolutionary basis. There is a certain metabolic cost to having something in the genome because there is a limited number of genes; there are only 30,000 genes, so for something to be encoded in the genes means it’s displacing something else, and so it has to be serving some important purpose, or at least evolution had to “think” it was going to serve an important purpose. All of this is by way of saying, if we’ve got music and we’ve had it as long as the species has been around, it must be doing something. Darwin himself thought that what music was doing had something to do with sexual selection, it’s demonstrating sexual fitness of a potential mate.
MT: What’s the evidence?
Levitin: Evidence is like finding bone flutes in burial sites of the species that preceded homo sapiens, in Neanderthal burial sites and things like that, suggesting that music even predates our species. That’s how long it’s been around. There isn’t evidence that music was for sexual selection, but there is argument. Darwin’s argument was that music demonstrated sexual and physical fitness. Picture yourself around a primitive camp site. You’re a hunter-gatherer culture, right? The first thing to recognize in that scenario is that music and dance co-occurred. There was no distinction made between the two: music and dance were the same activity, and they were inseparable. In fact, in most of the world’s languages today, the word for music and the word for dance is the same word. … So, you’re back 20,000 years ago, and you’re singing and dancing. The kind of singing and dancing that was done in ancient cultures tended to go on for a long, long time. To be able to sustain that activity and constantly come up with new forms and variations on the dance and music theme meant you had to have a good memory; you had to have stamina, flexible thinking, the kind of flexible thinking that would help you if you were on the hunt and you’re trying to track something and your culture hasn’t developed arrows yet. If you’re lucky, you’ve got spears, and you’re going to have to take down this big beast if you want to eat for the next few weeks. The idea was that dance was a sort of a proxy to indicate to a mate that you’ve got what it takes.
MT: And we’re still acting this out today?
Levitin: Well an interesting phenomenon — which Darwin invoked and Geoffrey Miller has taken up — is the peacock’s tail argument. The peacock’s tail argument goes like this: The peacock’s tail is actually hazardous to him because it attracts predators. And there is a great cost to maintaining that tail. The nourishment that the peacock takes in could be going to other things like giving him strong muscles so he can run faster. So why put all of this metabolism into the tail? What the peacock is indicating to the peahen is that he is so strong and fast and agile that he can afford to attract predators because he’ll outrun them. He’s so rich in food resources that he can afford to waste this on his tail that has no other purpose. It’s just a showy display and by what he’s indicating he doesn’t have to waste any energy developing shelter. What he’s saying to the peahen is “choose me I’m a strong, healthy, wealthy mate.”
MT: And making music is sort of like a peacock’s tail?
Levitin: The end of this argument is that rock stars today still get a lot of women and it doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re good-looking or not. They are perceived as sexy even when they’re not conventionally good-looking — I mean, look at Keith Richards, for example. He is not an attractive man, but he doesn’t want for women. So there’s something in there telling women, some ancient signal, telling them that he’s desirable.
MT: There’s something about being a musician. It’s not just the money and the status — you’re saying there something inherent that music brings to that …
Levitin: There was a study where women could choose whether they’d want to have sex with a man who was creative or a man who is wealthy and they chose the man who is creative over the man who is wealthy.
MT: But didn’t it make a difference where they were in their menstrual cycle in the study?
Levitin: Yes, if they were going to conceive, if they were fertile, they wanted to be with the man who was creative. If they weren’t, they wanted to be with the man who was wealthy. So the argument was that there is one kind of man that they’d like as the parent for their children, the biological parent. The other kind of man they’d want as sort of the father, not biological, but raising the kid.
MT: So this book should be promoted to homely creative people?
Levitin: I guess.
MT: There’s a lot of research going on around the way music works in the brain. Do you think there might be evidence to support this idea 5 or 10 years down the road? Or is always just going to be argument?
Levitin: Ultimately, I’m not an evolutionary biologist, and I don’t know what they’re expecting to see in the coming years and decades. But I mean certainly with what we’re now able to do gene expression analysis and these kinds of technologies, we’re taking a lot of the guesswork out of evolutionary work. I think it’s certainly possible in the coming 20 years if we can find some genetic evidence for preserved skeletons with some genetic material intact from early homo sapiens and from homo erectus and Australopithecus, and if we learn to identify those parts of the genome that are involved in music, and we can sort of trace their evolution, that will be a big help.
But the other thing that we found in my laboratory, which is exciting — through more conventional means — is just that some of the brain areas that are associated with music are some of the very oldest areas; they preceded even being human. The cerebellum is actually Latin for “little brain” and all vertebrates have it. It’s evolutionarily very old, so that suggests that music must be old also.
MT: You’re not saying that reptiles have music?
Levitin: But there were some neural structures in place that long ago that could respond to some of the elements of music.
MT: And that’s also where all the timing mechanisms for the brain are.
Levitin: Yeah, and it’s also why it can sometimes be hard to not move when you’re hearing music.
MT: You talk a lot about timbre in your book, which is the texture of a sound, the difference, for instance, between middle C on violin and middle C on a bassoon. You say it’s become more important to today’s music than in the past.
Levitin: I want to make sure I wasn’t misunderstood. It’s not that I don’t think that great songwriters today aren’t working with melody and rhythm. But I think it’s important to recognize that they’re using timbre alongside melody and rhythm more so than composers have in the past. And it’s actually not my own idea. This came from Justice Scalia in an opinion. When John Fogerty was sued by his old record company because his new solo album had songs that sounded like Credence Clearwater Revival, the case went to the Supreme Court. Justice Scalia argued that there had not been plagiarism. John Fogerty had not plagiarized himself, but you were dealing with a case of a musician with a limited compositional palette and no formal music theory education and working in a domain where timbre was a compositional device as much as rhythm or melody. So the reason that Scalia said that John Fogerty’s solo material sounded like the Credence material was because he was working against limitations that are common in this genre of rock music and that it was really timbral similarity that the plaintiffs were noticing.
MT: I was amazed when you talked about how little of the timbre of a piece you could play and have it be recognized.
Levitin: You can play somebody the shortest little blip of something, a hundred milliseconds, 250 milliseconds, something so short that there is no melody apparent because there is only one note and there is no rhythm apparent. In many, many cases people can pick out what the song is. I do this informally all the time and it depends on the population that you’re doing it for and what music they listen to. But almost everybody that I know — if I play the opening vocal for “Eleanor Rigby,” just where the Beatles are going “Ahhh,” just before they start singing, “Look at all the lonely people,” just a quarter of a second of that one note, people know that it’s the Beatles and most people know beyond that it’s “Eleanor Rigby,” and you can do the same thing with the cowbell that opens “Honky Tonk Women.” There are these things that are all about timbre that people have encoded in memory. And timbre memory is important evolutionarily because it’s what distinguishes your voice from another person’s voice or a familiar voice from an unfamiliar voice or, more subtly, it’s what allows you to tell when a friend of yours is angry with you or has a cold or is sick because the timbre has changed. They could be saying the same words in the same tempo and at the same pitch, but these timbral shifts are important cues, clues about the state of the environment that I think carry a lot of the message …
MT: What’s the focus of your research right now?
Levitin: Everything that I’ve been doing, we’re continuing to poke and prod at. We also have a new line of work where we’re looking at the way emotion is conveyed through timing and amplitude in a piano performance. The physics of the piano are such that there are only two decisions that a pianist can make if they’re playing from a score: they can hit the key hard or soft, they can hit the key early or late, but that’s all there. All the expressive nuance that you get out of the piano comes from those two decisions unlike, say, a wind instrument where you’ve got breath and all these subtleties that are consequent to the amount of force that you’re putting in from you diaphragm and your embouchure and so on. We’ve been studying piano performances in detail and trying to distinguish expressivity from wooden performances and look at the way these parameters are manipulated in expert performances.
MT: Where will that take you?
Levitin: There a number of research questions here. One is that we’re finding, in fact, you can affect profoundly someone’s emotions by changing something like the loudness of a note. A pianist playing from a score doesn’t play all notes at the same loudness and doesn’t play them all at the same duration even if they are notated on the score to be the same duration, and these subtle little changes can profoundly affect the emotions of the person’s experiences so that’s interesting to know. Beyond that we’re interested in understanding whether musical training makes one more sensitive to these kinds of manipulations. Is it the case that someone who has been a musician longer can notice a smaller or more subtle deviation or manipulation of the timing or the loudness — and that turns out to be true. And we’ve also been using it to probe people with autism because people with autism are attracted to music. They appear to have impaired emotional function, and we’re trying to figure out whether that impaired emotional function is limited to face perception and voices. It isn’t clear from the literature whether they understand musical emotion or not — and the emerging picture is that they don’t.
MT: I expected a book just about how music affects the brain but it also seemed to be using music as a way to look into the brain.
Levitin: I think that’s what my research program is about. Although I have a sort of hobbyist interest in understanding music more, what I’m really after in terms of my training and the ultimate questions I’m asking is I’m trying to understand the brain and music is just a window into that. The fact that we’ll learn something about music itself in the process is sort of a happy benefit or a happy accident. The brain is kind of like the final frontier. It’s uncharted territory, and we know so little about it that anything that we can do that can help us to better map it, better understand how different circuits are functioning and wired up, we need to do that. We need to do it in order to help people recover from strokes and from tumor and brain lesions. We have such a poor understanding and our medicine is so primitive compared to where it could be. Music’s a great tool for all of that because it in fact involves every part of the brain that we’ve so far mapped, and it’s one of the last things to go in the case of Alzheimer’s.
MT: Your book is a major statement for people who think music is inherently meaningful. But there’s another argument saying that our love for music is no more an evolutionary adaptation than our love for cheesecake. That’s the way the linguist Steven Pinker described it in one of his books. Are you expecting a major counterstatement from the Pinker-cheesecake school?
Levitin: Although he made the cheesecake statement, I think he’s really not all that interested in defending his position or getting involved in the debate. Music isn’t really his thing. It’s been unfair in some respects that he got drawn into this whole argument because he’s really a specialist in language, and I think he’d prefer to just talk about that stuff. I know that I sent him a copy of the book and he wasn’t interested in reading it, and The New York Times interviewed him a few weeks ago after my book hit the bestseller list, just to get a comment, and he hadn’t read it and had no interest in reading it. So I think it’s not really his domain.
MT: Well, are you expecting a major counterargument from anyone?
Levitin: Well, I think there’s a lot of benefit in discussing these issues, and I expect that there will be continued discussion from the other side — if you want to call them that.
The Web site yourbrainonmusic.com is both a complement to Levitin’s book, with musical examples, and an introduction to it. W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org