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!