Music of the Hemispheres

There’s a great piece in The New York Times on Prof Daniel Levitin and the rapidly developing research field tackling the cognitive neuroscience of music.

We’ve covered material related to Levitin’s recently-released book This is Your Brain on Music (ISBN 0525949690) before, but the NYT article goes into a little more detail into some of the scientific findings than previous articles.

Letivin is an ex-rock producer who eventually became disillusioned with the music industry but maintained his love of music through his work as a neuropsychologist.

For his first experiment he came up with an elegant concept: He stopped people on the street and asked them to sing, entirely from memory, one of their favorite hit songs. The results were astonishingly accurate. Most people could hit the tempo of the original song within a four-percent margin of error, and two-thirds sang within a semitone of the original pitch, a level of accuracy that wouldn’t embarrass a pro.

“When you played the recording of them singing alongside the actual recording of the original song, it sounded like they were singing along,” Dr. Levitin said.

It was a remarkable feat. Most memories degrade and distort with time; why would pop music memories be so sharply encoded? Perhaps because music triggers the reward centers in our brains. In a study published last year [pdf] Dr. Levitin and group of neuroscientists mapped out precisely how.

Observing 13 subjects who listened to classical music while in an M.R.I. machine, the scientists found a cascade of brain-chemical activity. First the music triggered the forebrain, as it analyzed the structure and meaning of the tune. Then the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area activated to release dopamine, a chemical that triggers the brain’s sense of reward.

His book got a glowing review from Salon, although I’ve yet to find any reviews in the academic literature.

However, Levitin’s website has a huge amount of information on it, including the audio of interviews he’s done and the full text of all his papers, so is well worth a visit if you’re interested in checking out the area.

UPDATE: Dr Levitin emailed to say the book has indeed been reviewed in the academic literature. A review that appeared in the journal Cerebrum is available online as a pdf. Enjoy!

Link to NYT article ‘Music of the Hemispheres’ (via BrainWaves).
Link to Salon review of ‘This is Your Brain on Music’.
Link to Levitin’s website.

One thought on “Music of the Hemispheres”

  1. What i learned from the Dr. Levitin¬¥s book is that all of us, in a more or less measure, have something similar to a “musical instinct” that we can exercise, because is hardwired in our brains or “minds”.
    And that relieves me, because my mom plays the piano and i have no idea even of singing, though to pretend before her i listen classical music.
    It´s a truly recommendable book to wander around the fascinating discipline of the cognitive neuroscience of music.

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