How the musical brain works

September 17, 2016 • Posted in radio, Uncategorized by

Tune in….I happened to catch Dr. Daniel Levitin (the author of This Is Your Brain on Music) on NPR earlier this month — he’s the cognitive psychologist who runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal. Levitin says music is involved in every region of the brain scientists have mapped so far, and since music is processed in the emotional part of the brain, it stays deep in our long-term memory.

Research shows that listening to music also releases certain chemicals in the brain. Dopamine, a “feel-good hormone,” is released every time you listen to music you like. Listening to music with someone else can also release prolactin, a hormone that bonds people together. And if you sing together? You release oxytocin, which causes feelings of trust.

Maybe the trust I have in my sisters stems from singing “Shine on Harvest Moon” during long car rides with Flo when we were growing up. And gee, I am still bonded to friends I made in my high school band. And yes, I do get a happy feeling whenever I hear a good tune. Everything Levitin said about hormones made perfect sense to me, but his claim later on that humans develop a taste for music by the time we are five years old seemed a bit outlandish.

Then again, my brother Doug, a professional jazz trombonist, was a teenager when I was born. He practiced day and night when I was a toddler. He purchased a piano for our family when I was four years old.

Flipping through our CD collection, what do I find? A heavy dose of piano players. Randy Newman. Stevie Wonder. Joni Mitchell. Marcus Roberts. Ben Folds Five. And when it comes to hearing live music, what am I particularly drawn to? A band with a horn section. Maybe that Levitin guy ws on to something after all.

Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music book came out years ago. The reason NPR’s Ari Shapiro was interviewing Dr. Levitin now was because of a study the professor did on pop musician Sting’s brain. Results of that study were published this month in the journal Neurocase.

Sting read Levitin’s book and liked it so much he contacted the neuroscientist to tour his lab. While he was there, Levitin asked Sting if he’d be willing to have his brain scanned. Sting agreed.

The NPR story featured excerpts from some of the songs Levitin had Sting listen to back-to-back during the scan — Livitin purposely chose songs he himself regarded as having little in common.

One paring was “Girl” by the Beatles and a tango by Astor Piazzolla. Scientists expected very different neurons to fire in the musician’s brain, but Sting surprised them. His brain heard a three-note pattern and other markers in both songs that a non-musician might not pick up on, and the activity in his brain was very similar during both songs.

Another pairing Levitin ran by Sting was “Green Onions” by Booker T. and the M.G.’s and a recording of Sting singing one of his own songs, “Moon over Bourbon Street.” Levitin didn’t think of those two songs as being particularly similar, but Sting’s brain did. “Both are in a swing rhythm, they’re both in the key of F-minor,” Levitin said. . “They both have the same tempo of 132 beats per minute.”

Levitin said his study will help scientists understand how expertise works in the brain. He believes people like Sting are born with certain talents but have to nurture those talents to become experts.

Enough said. Time to turn the stereo on and nurture my talents. Bring on the dopamine!

Heidi Thorsen On September 17, 2016 at 2:39 pm

Beth and Mike, your blog is so multifaceted. Not only am I encouraged in my journey with vision loss and memoir writing, but you share cultural, intellectual, political, and humorous writings with your lucky readers. Thanks for this post, it was a very interesting read from the perspective of a child born in a family that loves to sing, but married to someone who does not.

bethfinke On September 17, 2016 at 4:25 pm

Heidi, what a flattering comment. Thank you. Keep writing, and keep singing –even if you have to do it solo at home!


judy roth On September 17, 2016 at 3:36 pm

None of that surprises me. I only know that when I hear music of which I’m fond, (except rock & roll) I get a sort of warm, almost yearning feeling. It’s a bit like what I feel when I get a caffein high. Go figure

bethfinke On September 17, 2016 at 4:27 pm

Must be the dopamine.


Mel Theobald On September 17, 2016 at 5:45 pm

What a neat thing. My twin brother and I have always loved opera, classical and generous portions of modern music, but neither of us can find the beat. He once lost a girlfriend because he could’t find the tempo to dance. So, a few years ago I was complimented – I think – by a woman whose expertise is rhythm in the music of various cultures. When I told her I always clap between the beat, she said, “You have a wonderful gift. It’s called syncopation. That’s very rare.” To this day I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But the dopamine keeps flowing. Wonder what Levitin would make of that? Thanks Beth. It’s always a treat to read your thoughts – I mean blog.

Mel Theobald On September 17, 2016 at 5:47 pm

Ooops…I meant “popular” not “modern.” Call it syncopation.

bethfinke On September 17, 2016 at 11:45 pm

Syncopation it is!


bethfinke On September 17, 2016 at 11:44 pm

I’d say if a potential partner likes your dopamine, go with it.


Gail Merritt On September 17, 2016 at 7:13 pm

Hi Beth There I was on the Red Line on our way to the Greenhouse Theater (!), rueing to Paul having to leave our just-started conversation. We – you and I – haven’t really had a visit and there we were perched on the edge of one and I had to leave. Oh well. I was catching up on emails on the train and read your Brain on Music blog. So interesting – and true! I love your blog and look forward to when we have a chance to visit. Sometime! Gail

Sent from my mobile.


bethfinke On September 17, 2016 at 11:46 pm

Thanks, Gail.


Sharon Kramer On September 18, 2016 at 7:19 am

This doesn’t surprise me. My ex-husband could hardly speak in the last year of his life but could sing all the tunes from My Fair Lady and other shows that he loved. It seemed miraculous.

bethfinke On September 18, 2016 at 9:19 am

It is kind of miraculous. When my friend Matt called me to let me know he would no longer be taking the medication they had back then for AIDS and was not going to have I.V. fluids or anything anymore, I made a cassette of a vinyl recording of our high school band. I brought that recording with me when I flew down to see him at the hospital to say goodbye. He was unconscious when I got there, but when I laid the cassette player down near his ear and turned the tape on, he made an appreciative noise. Others in the room told me he smiled. Remarkable.


Marilee On September 19, 2016 at 12:34 pm

Reading this late- but wanted to thank you for sharing this info about Dr. Levitan’s work. I want to read more. All of the musicians I know seem to be very happy people!!

bethfinke On September 19, 2016 at 12:37 pm

Note to self: we all should sing together more often!


ojdohertyJenny On September 26, 2016 at 3:55 pm

Really interesting how our brains react to music.

bethfinke On September 26, 2016 at 7:57 pm

It sure is.

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