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May 20th, 2009
Interview with Daniel Levitin
Part Two

I noticed in the title of your book you infer that music created human nature.  What do you mean by that?

Daniel Levitin

Daniel Levitin: In my book, The World In Six Songs: How the Music Brain Created Human Nature, what I’m arguing is that certain changes in the prefrontal cortex, evolutionarily speaking, created structures in the brain that allowed for art, and allowed for reflexive thinking, and allowed for music and science, all as part of the same structural changes in the brain.  The musical brain is also the scientific brain, the metaphorical brain, and the brain that was able to create societies, systems of courts and justice and systems of democratic principles, such as welfare, taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves. All this came from an ability to see ourselves objectively, to see ourselves as members of a society, to build societies in which people looked out after each other and took care of one another.

There is no other species that does this. I mean, we look at ant society, and bee society, which is highly structured, but it’s very different. They don’t have systems of courts, they don’t create art, they don’t try to reflect on their own existence.  I think all of these came from a single set of changes in prefrontal cortex that gave us music at the same time.

So what’s the big question driving music research now?  Is it, “What is the purpose of music?”

I’m not sure there’s a single big question driving music cognition research. I think most of us in the field came at it not from the standpoint of wanting to do music cognition, per se, but wanting to do cognition. How does the brain work? How does attention work?  How does memory work? How do we form new concepts, how do we put things into categories? And we use music as a way to get at those questions because it’s a converging approach, it’s another window into these operations.

It’s also a nice way to spend your time, in the laboratory. I think some of us also have bonafide questions about music, and its role in human culture and in human development.  I happen to think that music was necessary for the formation of human societies.

If you look at primates, they tend not to have living groups with more than eighteen males, because there’s too much competition, they can’t sustain themselves. But for at least five or six thousand years, human beings have lived in assemblies of hundreds of thousands, half a million people. Ancient Athens, ancient Rome were big, big cities. Why is it we can do it and primates can’t? One argument is that collective music making soothes some of the social tensions that would’ve created, splinter societies.

What about the Steven Pinker’s argument?  Tell me what it is, and your response to it.

Steven Pinker’s argument is that music was a spandrel or a co-opted adaptation. These are technical ways of talking about evolutionary biology, but the upshot is that language is what evolution selected for, and music sort of came along for the ride, later.

Once we had language, we figured out ways to trick the brain into making music. And he calls it “Auditory Cheesecake,” which is a well-known argument in evolutionary theory.

People say, “Well, why do we like cheesecake? That’s not adaptive, too much cheesecake causes obesity, and can lead to diabetes and things like that. Cheesecake is not healthy.” But the fact is, over evolutionary time scales, you can’t talk about the age of manufactured foods, you know, with the last fifty years, a hundred years- evolutionary time scales are much longer than that. Tens of thousands of years ago our hunter gatherer ancestors had very few sources of fats and sweets, and it was an adaptive strategy, when they found them, to load up on them, to take some pleasure in storing them in their bodies.

Now, where can you just open the pantry, and there are obscene amounts of fats and sweets available, and you don’t have to work for it?  They’re everywhere, and it turns out they can lead to health problems that we didn’t anticipate. Our liking for cheesecake, Pinker and others argue, is a by product of this old evolutionary system that no longer works. He says the same thing is true of music — our liking for music is a by product of an old evolutionary system that’s selected for language.

I think Pinker’s argument is that there isn’t a gene, or set of genes, that sub-serve music.  We’ve somehow tricked the language system into giving us music. He may be right. There may not be a gene for music. There may be genes that serve components of music. And if they’re there, we have to wonder why they’re there- the genome is crowded. In fact, it’s getting more and more crowded each year. Five years ago we thought humans had thirty thousand genes, now we think there are only twenty-three thousand. I pick up journals every month and they’ve, they’ve lowered the number.  That’s not a lot of genes.

Even though most of the story is how genes interact with one another and whether they’re turned on or not, whether they’re expressed or not at a particular point in time. Gene expression is really the frontier of genetics research today. Still, twenty-three thousand genes- it isn’t a whole lot to go around, when you consider all the different ways that human differ from one another. And when you consider that we’ve got ninety-eight percent of our DNA in common with the chimpanzee, there just isn’t a whole lot left over for things like music, and painting, and language, politics, and art. You know, all the things that make us human.

And what do you think of that?

Well, it’s a reasonable argument.  I think the evidence, has to be considered and weighed by each person for themselves. My personal view, not just because I like music, but my personal view of the science of it, is that there’s more evidence on the side that music was first.

Such as?

Some of the evidence is the way in which music activates primitive structures in the brain, that language doesn’t. The fact that music seems to trigger certain neurochemical reactions- they can be taken evidence, either way. You know, heroin is maladaptive, in the long run, and yet people seem to like it once they try it. It’s tricking the pleasure center into thinking it’s got something good. So, the fact that we get this neurochemical happy juice, or burst, when we listen to music, you can say that, well, it’s, “It’s more like heroin, it’s an accident that music triggers these things.” Or, you can say, “It’s more like nutrition. It’s supposed to trigger those things.” That’s hard to weigh.

But when I look at the animal literature, and you look at birds and primates who have calls that are more musical than they are speech-like — that is they tend to have properties that more resemble human music than they do human speech — to me, anyway, that suggests that music was something that early hominids, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, probably had, and language came out of that. You can imagine, as Stephen Mithen does — and this is kind of a cartoon version of his argument — that you can imagine a conversation between Neanderthals that had music, but no speech. You’ve got these musical elements, and sort of speech-like elements. You’ve got prosody, rhythm, tempo, pitch changes-all this without words, right? All of this is being conveyed by what we conventionally think of as the elements of music.

  • Shelley Minanel

    Could the reason that there are so many outstanding Jewish musicians and conductors be that the Torah was the first to legislate compassion for the helpless and that left a neurological impression on the Jewish brain for music?

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