A look at your brain, and music: Dr. Daniel Levitin
composes a connection
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
At an intimate talk and concert at Mighty Fine Guitar's Lafayette performance venue on Jan. 19, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin and multi-instrumentalist Carlos "The Harp Guy" Reyes shared their take on where music comes from -- the head and the heart.
Levitin grew up in the Bay Area, living in Moraga from 1962 to 1972. But in 1990 the rocker packed up his guitar and the 17 gold and platinum records he'd produced and went back to school, emerging to tell the world how music affects the brain.
Along the way to becoming a James McGill Professor of psychology, behavioral neuroscience and music at McGill University in Montreal, Levitin wrote the best-selling book "This Is Your Brain on Music" (Dutton/Penguin, 2006) and later "The World in Six Songs" (2008). he also made a few friends, like Reyes.
And on Stevie Coyle's cozy, 10-by-15-foot stage at Mighty Fine Guitars, the two masters of music seemed more like best buddies than icons.
"I'll play an "F" (note) on guitar and you play it on the piano," Levitin urged, asking Reyes to do a 180 to reach the instrument, then chuckling heartily at Reyes' exaggerated grimace. "With eyes closed, you can distinguish the sound of each instrument. That's timbre. There's one spot in the brain that processes timbre."
Sound starts with molecules vibrating, eardrums wiggling, chemical and electrical brain activity, and the cortex (which if flattened out, resembles a keyboard with low-note receptors at one end, high-note receptors at the other) building a satisfying response. With repeat listenings, neurons "get into a particular state," Levitin said, explaining the physical science behind musical memory and why people with Alzheimer's who are unable to speak can still render lyrics -- and the precise tempo and key -- of their favorite songs.
Musical motifs can be as short as three notes from which a complete song can be recognized in a noisy Safeway, Levitin said. People suffering depression or disorders like schizophrenia are also impacted by music, he added.
Levitin earned a B.A. in cognitive psychology and cognitive science at Stanford University before completing a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Oregon.
About the time when Levitin was a kid, listening to broadcasts of "Susie Q" by Creedence Clearwater Revival on nightly Wolfman Jack transmissions from Mexico, or engrossed in the woolly wonder of caterpillars in Moraga's pear trees, Reyes was in the South American country of Paraguay, plucking on a violin. Soon, the cheeky toddler added the 36-string Paraguayan harp to his repertoire, and -- capturing hearts and earning critical acclaim -- the multi-instrumentalist jazzman rolled out from under his musical father's tough, "that's not right" instruction to appear on Bay Area and world stages, television and award-winning recordings.
During an onstage interlude Sunday, Levitin and Reyes each described his personal beliefs connecting their artistry.
"Music is like a scene in a play," Levitin said. "It's function is to take you through an emotional trajectory." The expression of music, shared with someone who shows love and care, is
healing and magical, Reyes agreed. He issued a mini history lesson, building support for his claim ... speaking of Jesuits bringing music to the Paraguayan people, of Medieval bells curing disease, and that a "third" (an interval between two tones) capable of evoking joy or tears, peace or disharmony. Music, they suggested, is a way to escape pain and to unlock
the heart's desires in socially "acceptable" language. Levitin said a test with singer Bobby McFerrin showed he could keep his hand in a bucket of ice for only six seconds without music playing nearby ... but for three minutes with the salve of musical accompaniment.
Reyes recalled how music, writing and painting allowed his father to live 20 years beyond what had been a six-months-to-live bone cancer prognosis.
The real miracle, of course, occurred when Levitin and Reyes picked up their instruments and played. In a solo piece dedicated to Reyes' mother, his rhythmic skirmishes swelled into rich melody and a cascade of sound, ending simply, a single note evaporating more than ending. Switching to violin, with Levitin on his Graham Nash-designed Martin 000-42 GN guitar and belting out the lyrics to "Sweet Marie" by Country Joe McDonald, great music and sly humor set a completely opposite, lighthearted tone.
Reyes, who's been told he can make the harp sound like an entire band, did just that; playing a waterfall of rhythms that nearly stopped the show.
A question from the audience near the end of the show: "What causes a tune to stick in your head?" The neuroscientist allowed his buddy to answer. "That's called a hit," Reyes said.