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Interview with Daniel Levitin: Part Three | Music Instinct | PBS
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Interview with Daniel Levitin
Part Three

If the purpose of music was somehow to build community, do you think we’ve gotten away from that, somehow, in our society?

Daniel Levitin

Daniel Levitin: I’m not sure if I would say the purpose of music was to build community, but it may have been a function of music. We may have discovered that music can help ease and defuse social tensions, and create social bonds. My idea is that in fact music functioned in six distinct ways, throughout the development of our species. That’s the world, that’s the six songs, in The World In Six Songs. Social bonding was just one of them. Another was to communicate knowledge.

Knowledge becomes embedded in music, and it’s more easily remembered. We can remember things set to song more easily, whether it’s how to build a canoe, or, you know, how to prepare a plant so that it won’t be poisonous.  Another one is comfort.  Mother’s soothing their infants, letting them know that they’re here, even when the infant can’t feel the touch of the mother, because she’s out cooking or gathering. From the auditory signal, the infant is comforted by the recurring sound of the mother’s voice. Or lovers comforting one another, or hunters just letting each other know that they’re out there, when they can’t see each other, under the cover of night, or the cover of trees.

Another one would be joy. Just waking up in the morning and feeling really great, and wanting to move your body and sing, and you just, you know, make nonsense syllables as you move around, and I think, you know, there would have been some evolutionary reward for moving your body, for staying limber and flexing it, and music helps us to synchronize our body movements. It’s important to realize that you can’t make music without moving some part of your body. You either have to hit something or scrape something, or at least vibrate your vocal chords. Or you blow into something.

Love is another one. I think that people use music to express love to one another, as the Native American Indians did, as Pete Seeger told me, there would be a special song that a young man would compose for a young Native American woman, and that would be their song. And it would be what would bind them together. And he couldn’t sing it to anybody else, and she wouldn’t sing it to anybody else. That was their song, and we still talk about “our song”, in our culture. It has an interesting origin.

So there’s love, comfort, joy, friendship or social bonding knowledge, and the final one is religion. I think it’s a separate category of how people used music to think beyond themselves, beyond their own existence, to create a notion that there was something larger than themselves. Now, whether we believe in God today or not is beside the point.  We’re talking about tens of thousands of years of evolution, where people either believed in God, or Gods, or, or some higher power, or, some entity, that was larger than they were, larger than their own concerns, and larger than their own family group. Something they would appeal to, to rescue them in times of trouble.  And music has always been there for that.

But, all those uses of music, or purposes of music, are certainly part of daily life; are  an integral part of our existence, which is somewhat different from the way we may think of music today, going to a concert hall and sitting there and listening.

There has been this interesting evolutionary trend or cultural trend, anyway, in the last five hundred years, that, at least in Western society, we’ve set up a situation where most of us don’t make music everyday, and we don’t participate when other people are making music. We pay money, and then the experts entertain us. In fact, we’re told in school, sometimes, “Oh, don’t sing, leave the singing to the other kids. You just stand there and mouth the words and pretend that you’re singing with us, because you don’t sing well enough.”

Now, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. The first concert halls weren’t built until five hundred years ago, in Europe.  The idea that you would go and pay a class of experts to play for you, and that you would sit quietly with your hands folded in your lap, that’s actually foreign to us, evolutionarily speaking. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing. — I love a good concert as much as anyone, and I admire great musicians and love hearing them do what they do.  But, if we’re talking purely historically, anthropologically, this is something that’s foreign to our species.

How does music, its power to change the brain, have implications in the field of medicine, and also in education?

There’s been, in parallel to the more basic science side of things, there’s been a kind of practical side of music research: trying to figure out if music can make you smarter, or if learning an instrument has ancillary cognitive benefits. And there have been some rough starts in this arena, over the last fifteen years. But the emerging evidence, from carefully controlled studies, is that learning to play an instrument — not just passively listening, but learning to play an instrument early on — can actually confer some cognitive advantages.

It seems from early evidence thatif you learn to play an instrument early, you learn to read at an earlier age, you learn to read more quickly, you’re better at math, you’re better at a variety of scholastic topics, and we’re not exactly sure why this is, but it seems as though learning to play an instrument trains attentional networks in the interior Cingulate gyrus, in a way that maybe other things would do, too. Learning a second language learning to multitask, maybe crossword puzzles. I mean, nobody’s saying that music does it uniquely. But we’re saying that music does seem to do it.

And music uses many different parts of the brain, right?

Yeah.  Music uses many different parts of the brain, so that might be part of the story, too.

And this way that music can affect the brain also has implications for medicine?

There are a number of medical implications for this kind of work in the large picture of things we just don’t understand that much about the normal healthy brain, and how it functions, and how things are wired up. So any information we can get, either using music as a window or athletics, or playing chess- any of that’s helpful. But one of our goals is, that through understanding how music activates different areas of the brain, we’ll be able to map the brain, and be better equipped to come up with programs to help people that are victims of stroke, tumor, lesions, Alzheimer’s Disease, things of that nature.

The other thing that’s interesting is that when you go into old age homes, you find that one of the last things to go is music. Somebody may no longer remember the names of their spouse or family members, and yet, still be able to remember lyrics to songs they knew when they were fourteen.  Music insinuates itself into memory in a special way. This can be a way to reach out to somebody who is otherwise cut off, emotionally or cognitively, from the people around them.

(2 votes)
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Tom Nichols -- June 14th, 2009 at 6:47 pm


Barbara DeFilippo -- June 24th, 2009 at 11:57 pm

Evening Dan-

Really enjoyed seeing the program tonight. Reminded me of when we were in grad school, and you were asking questions about relationships with perfect pitch, musical experience, etc.

This question is an interesting one, because I think we still do very much build community through music. Many people I know share their playlists as part of the “getting to know you” process. It can give you an idea of not only what you might have in common, but the complexity of the individual and relative exposure to a wide range of cultures. Also, the use of Pandora, which allows you to create your own “stations”, which can also be shared with others, can serve the same function, but with less cost, effort, and technology.

On the research front, I’m interested in the mood regulating effects of music, particularly for subpopulations such as adults with Asperger’s. I have noticed that this population seems to include a large population of folks with perfect pitch, great musical memory, communication deficits, and some movement issues. In discussion with them, we have commented on the value of certain pieces or genres of music in allaying anxiety states or other symptoms associated with the disability, but have seen no published research. If you know of any, I’d be obliged if you’d pass it along, and I’ll share it with my colleagues. Thoroughly enjoyed watching the program. Nice work.

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