The singer/songwriter and the neuroscientist meet up to discuss music.

David Byrne, the well known lead singer and songwriter of the seminal band Talking Heads, has had an extensive solo career, won an Academy Award for his work on The Last Emperor soundtrack, exhibited his artwork internationally, and authored five books, including, most recently, Arboretum. For 10 years, Daniel Levitin worked as a session musician, sound and recording engineer, and record producer. He is now the James McGill professor of behavioral neuroscience and music at McGill University and the author of The New York Times bestseller This Is Your Brain on Music. Recently at STK, in New York’s Meatpacking District, the two traded ideas about music, language, and memory.

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DAVID BYRNE: So, in the penultimate sentence of your book, you write that music is a better tool than language for arousing feelings and emotions.

This ties into what we were discussing a few months ago, about music and visual art bypassing the filters that language seems to get snagged on, in emotionally affecting you.


DB: When somebody tells us what this song is about, or what this painting is about, we’re kind of stuck because talking about the art, and the art itself, are almost separate areas. The music seems to have straight access to the so-called “reptile brain,” and we feel it immediately. But often it’s also touching all kinds of other parts of the brain. If it has lyrics, there’s language in it. If it has a strong rhythmic element it’s touching what you would call the motor parts of the brain and muscle. All kinds of stuff is involved. How do you think this all happens?

DL: My guess is it starts with trying to unite rationality with irrationality.

DB: I’ll bet you get resistance too from people who say you can’t analyze this.

DL: Well, I remember a quote from Allan Watts, the philosopher. He wrote a number of books on Eastern philosophy in the 70s. He said that the problem with science is that when it wants to study the river, the scientist will go to the river with a bucket, take a bucket of water out, bring it to the shore, sit there, and study the bucket of water. But of course that’s not the river.

And you know a lot of people have tried to study music by getting rid of everything except pitch or everything except rhythm. Or by using very strange, computer-generated sounds, to see what the brain does in response to them.

There’s always this tension in science that you want to control your variables and you want to know what it is you’re studying. And yet you want to have what we call ecological validity, which is just a fancy way to say it has to be like the real world. There’s a tension between these two, and I’ve erred on the side of having ecological validity in my own experiments because I want to see the real phenomena.

But getting back to what you were saying about why art can get at some of the things language can’t.

DB: Yeah. I mean, there’s something about music that seems to touch what we would call irrational, emotional parts of ourselves. As somebody who makes music, you know there are kind of tried and true ways of doing that; there are buttons that you can press that will get emotional responses.

DL: Oh sure, the strings from Hitchcock’s Psycho. I mean, you play that dissonant discordant string sound, and you know the reaction you’ll get.

DB: In a musical performance, whether it’s recorded or live, people feel the emotion is coming from the performer, and that’s what makes it authentic and true and therefore more upstanding and good. Whereas I would say, yeah, okay, a little bit. But music has attributes that you can objectify. This kind of sound, this kind of rhythm, will generate this kind of emotion even if it’s done in a half-ass manner.

DL: In “Lilies of the Valley” you’re going way high up in your range. Your voice gets a little thin, and you get a crack in it. And it sounds like you’re choked up and you’re about to cry.

DB: Yes. And that’s the intended effect.

DL: So you try to get that.

DB:  It’s not that I don’t feel it.

DL: But you’re consciously aware that if you do that it’s going to have this result.

DB: Yes. And you could say, well then, it’s all just a trick. And it is in a way, but it’s also a craft to convey this emotion; this is how you do it.

DL: Yeah.

DB:  It doesn’t make it less real.

DL: I agree.

DB: This actually makes me think of some stuff I’ve read recently about empathy and mirror neurons. It’s a pretty new thing, isn’t it, relatively speaking?

DL: Relatively, yes. They were first discovered in Italy where a laboratory was recording from a cluster of neurons in monkeys’ brains. There was a monkey who was just sitting aside waiting his turn, watching another monkey reach for a banana and then peel it and eat it. And a clever technician noticed the cell recordings from this monkey and that his motor cortex was going crazy—the part of his brain that would be active if he were actually reaching for something and peeling it back. They thought this was strange. Do we have our wires crossed? You know, we’re measuring this monkey’s brain and not the other. They looked into all possible explanations.

They eventually replicated it with a number of different things, and it turned out that they had discovered what are now called, loosely, mirror neurons: neurons that mirror the activity of others. It’s sort of the old monkey see, monkey do. So then the question is, how does that happen? How is it that monkeys learn to imitate behavior?

One of the great mysteries in human behavior was that a newborn child can look up at its parent, and the parent smiles, and the newborn will smile. Well, how does it know how to do that? How does it know by looking at an upturned mouth what muscles it needs to move to make its own mouth turn up? How does it know that it’s going to produce the same effect? There’s a whole complicated chain of neuroscientific puzzles attached to this question.

DB: So when you watch a performance, sports for example, you’re not only watching somebody else do it. In a neurological kind of way, you’re experiencing it.

DL:Yeah, exactly. And when you see a musician, especially if you’re a musician yourself—

DB: —air guitar.

DL: Air guitar, right! And you can’t turn it off—it’s without your conscious awareness. So mirror neurons seem to have played a very important role in the evolution of the species because we can learn by watching, rather than having to actually figure it out step-by-step.

DB: Yeah, and not only that. You also empathize, you feel what they’re feeling. You perceive this person doing this thing, whether it’s singing or making music or performing, and the emotions that they appear to be going through and expressing nonverbally. And you immediately empathize with them, and you start feeling the same thing that they appear to be feeling.

DL:Yeah, and I think, ultimately, some aestheticians and philosophers would say that the goal of art is to get you in the same mind-set or heart-set as the artist was in when they created the work. They’re trying to create a mirror emotion experience.

Stevie Wonder told me that he wrote songs by putting himself in a particular emotional state, recalling a specific event or feeling. And then when he recorded them, he tried to get back into the

DB: I would argue that if the song is written well, you don’t have to begin the performance of the song in that emotional state. But by the time you get to the end, the song will have regenerated the emotions that you want to express. So you end up with the feeling that you want to express, but you don’t have to have it going in.

DL:Right. And there is a neurological basis for this, actually. It starts with the finding that when we’re imagining music, it uses the same neurons and circuits as when we’re actually hearing it. They’re almost indistinguishable.

So when you’re imagining or remembering something, it could be music or a painting or a kiss, disparate neurons from different parts of your brain get together in the same configuration they were in when you experienced it the first time. They’re members of a unique set of neurons that experienced that first kiss or that first bungee jump or whatever it is that you’re recalling.

Actually, it’s in the word “remember”—you’re re-membering them. You’re making them members of this original set again. I think that’s what memory is.

DB: I agree that it’s something like a network or a cloud.

DL: Yeah, it doesn’t exist in one place. It exists everywhere.


DB: Okay, so someone like Steven Pinker might say that music, while it might be pleasurable, is basically an evolutionary byproduct, a side effect of something else.

DL: Yeah, that’s his story and he’s sticking to it.

DB: He’s still sticking to it.

DL: I saw him a couple of weeks ago, and he’s still sticking to it.

DB: Right now I’m pretty much won over by the other point of view, that music and art and other kinds of “non-useful” skills that we have, that don’t seem practical, at least on the surface, do have a use. Music, for example, is good for you and it’s healthy. You’ll live longer if you listen to it and you enjoy it.

DL: Yeah. Well, the Pinker argument is that in spite of the fact that we find music pleasurable, and it can prolong life and we devote a lot of our energy to it, it wasn’t an evolutionary adaptation. Language was the adaptation, and music is sort of piggybacking on it.

He draws some analogies. For example, from what we know, birds didn’t actually evolve feathers in order to fly; they evolved them to keep warm in the climates and environments they were in. Once they had this feathery stuff, they then later co-opted it for flight.

DB: Yeah.

DL: There’s no evidence that the purpose of feathers was for flight. I mean purpose metaphorically, because, of course, evolution doesn’t have a purpose.

Pinker’s argument is that humans didn’t evolve music for a purpose. Once we had language, we exploited the language that was there, as birds exploited feathers. I don’t know if, at the end of the day, the argument really matters, but I think that Pinker is wrong because, for example, in very, very primitive structures that all reptiles have, that all vertebrates have, including humans, there are projections from the ear to the cerebellum and to the limbic system. And these projections convey music almost selectively as opposed to language. Which suggests that music might be evolutionarily older than language.

Also, I mean, we’re talking about how music and art seem to be able to convey things that language can’t. Well, why would that be?

DB: Mm-hmm.

DL: So when you ask a question like that, you’re coming up against the evolutionary-origin
question. I’ve been thinking about this, actually, and it doesn’t surprise me that we use art and music to communicate so many things that language won’t. What surprises me is that we’re able to get as far as we can with language.

Describing something using language, I think, moves it further away from the actual experience. We resort to dance, visual art, music, and lovemaking as a way to express things that are not expressible in language. I think that those are the primary forms of communication, and language is secondary.

DB: I’d agree. Although I’d say that there’s an aspect of language that’s musical, that has those qualities that lyrics of a song or a poem has, the melodic ups and downs of where the vowels and the consonants hits. There’s an emotional content to the pure sound.

DL: Yeah, and to the quality of the person’s voice.

DB: Yes.


DB: I once toured with a musician who has perfect pitch. We were traveling on the bus, he had a little keyboard and he would hear car horns and he knew exactly what note it was. He knew it was C sharp, and he could then start improvising something in the key of the traffic. It was beautiful and it was funny and all that. But it made you start to wonder, okay, when is it noise, when is it traffic, and when is it music? Because for somebody like him the line gets crossed. He finds it annoying sometimes because the car horn will be a C sharp, but an out-of-tune C sharp.

DL: Firing off an angry letter to Ford.

DB: And then there are those who have synesthesia, where sounds generate colors, or worse, tastes. So a sound will actually physically taste sour to them.

DL: Yeah, but that’s interesting because when it’s an extreme form, they can’t tell whether they’re tasting or hearing something.

DB: Really?

DL: Yeah.

DB: They don’t know which sense is the trigger?

DL: Right. There’s actually a theory that all infants are synesthetes, and that sensory differentiation takes a few months after birth to occur. And that infants live in this sort of psychedelic world of everything being jumbled together.

DB: Wow.

DL: But for most of us, the studies from my laboratories and others have shown that language, environment noise and music all have separate cortical representations—they register and show up in distinct parts of the brain.

And then there are things like what I would call paralinguistic noises. Things that aren’t language but that are associated with the expression of the human voice: laughter, crying, sneezing, coughing, hiccups, groaning. These things seem to have their own representation but are closer to the language sections. But we do make a distinction neurologically between speech, music, and environmental sounds.

DB: Right.

DL: When we sing lyrics, both mechanisms, both sets of structures, are being activated. And if you look at, for example, the acousmatic composers from Belgium, France, and Québec who create entire musical pieces out of jackhammers and waterfalls, there is this sense of ambiguity where your brain is recognizing the sounds as environmental sounds, but the music part of the brain is getting activated too.

In Pink Floyd’s “Money,” maybe the first popular recording that did this, cash-register noises make music. And the brain, I think, responds to that with both mechanisms, which means more of your brain is actually reacting.

DB: Right. Generally, we don’t see them as music, but if they fall into a pattern—

DL: —or once a composer places them in a pattern, then you get it.

DB: Somebody orchestrates a bunch of car horns, and it’s music.

DL: I’ve got a recording from a guy named Woody Phillips, who is a carpenter. He noticed that if he put particularly dense wood through his power saw, it would slow it down a predictable amount. So, normally, the power saw would be like zzzz, but if he pushed through a two-by-four of pine, it goes bzzz and a two-by-four of maple goes bzut. So he lined up pieces of wood, and he performed a piece of music—Beethoven’s Fifth.

DB: Oh—ha!

DL: I’ll send it to you. Any one of the sounds in isolation you wouldn’t associate with pitch, but you hear the pitch difference as the saw runs through them. Think about how extraordinary that is. The brain is able to map something it’s never heard before. It’s never heard Beethoven’s Fifth played on power tools, but it knows. We don’t have a computer that can do that. The most powerful computer at NORAD, or wherever, can’t take a power-tool version of Beethoven’s Fifth and tell you what song it is.

DB: Yeah.

DL: It can’t compare the live version of “And She Was” with the studio version and tell you it’s the same song, but the brain does that—

DB: —immediately.

DL: In seconds. It recognizes the pattern. The brain’s looking for order and form. It’s a fabulous pattern detector.

DB: Yeah.

DL: It’s why dots in a Monet painting become trees, when, really, when you look close they’re just dots. Or fusilli becomes a chair.

DB: Yes.

DL: The chair in your art exhibit, that’s fusilli, isn’t it?

DB: Actually, it’s macaroni.


DL: So you’re interested in trance states.
DB: Yeah, I am. I’m interested for a few reasons. One, because there’s a lot of popular secular music that I think borrows from sacred music. And because of the way it generates a kind of trance state or a transcendent state in the listener.

DL: Yeah.

DB: So you see through the crack in the door or whatever—you can see that wow, this music is taking me to a place that generates all those kind of vaguely spiritual feelings—like I’ve gone outside myself, or I had an out-of-body experience, all these kind of things. And music is often talked about in these spiritual terms. So I feel that there’s something going on here. Obviously, these musical experiences are touching another part of the brain that’s linked to a kind of spiritual or religious experience. Probably because it takes us out of ourselves in that kind of sense, for want of some better term.

DL: I think that’s a perfect description of it: out of ourselves.

DB: And it’s a little bit of ego loss, which, like in Eastern philosophy, is a kind of pleasurable, transcendental experience. You become one with all these other people around you.

DL: Yeah.

DB: So it’s like all of a sudden you’re part of the hive; it’s this wonderful feeling.

DL: Right, and this isn’t unique to music. There are other things that will get you there, chanting, breathing, etc.

DB: Yes.

DL: And I think what they all have in common—you nailed it when you talked about being out of yourself—is the sense that your thoughts are not under your conscious control, that something else is guiding them, though you’re still aware of them and can bear witness to them.

That’s what dreams are, in a sense. And why music or rhythm is able to induce this state is a mystery. Nobody knows. We do know a little bit, neurologically, about what’s happening. We know there’s a suppression of frontal-lobe activity. We can measure changes in alpha waves and gamma waves and things like this. But those are really descriptions, not explanations.

DB: Uh huh.

DL: We don’t really have the ability to explain how it happens or why. But it does seem to have something to do, if you’ll let me speculate, with this balance between seeking order and predictability and violating that order and predictability. And when you have a complex pattern of rhythm or pitch, which is what music is, you relinquish some of your control. You’re in a state of relaxation, you’re following along this stream of sounds. You’re making yourself vulnerable, giving in to the music. And you’re lulled into this state of half sleep, half wakefulness, is the best way I would describe it.

It’s a powerful experience to have with other people. Which is why in the 60s, when people took drugs, the classic thing was sitting around on pillows with a group of people. Or when you go to a concert with 20,000 people, to some extent you’re out of yourself, but you’re with everybody else and it creates a bond. I think the Grateful Dead had this.

DB: Yeah, it’s not strictly a musical experience.

DL: Right. And I really think that one of the ancient functions of music was for social bonding. I mean, there’s a lot of evidence. If you go to current tribal communities that have been cut off from Western civilization, they use music to form community.

DB: Mm-hmm.

DL: Each tribe has its own music. The men stay up to ward off predators by singing around the campfire. Music is communal. It’s almost ironic that today technology and culture have taken us to where we all have our little ear-buds and we listen to music in private, given that for tens of thousands of years, the only way music was experienced by humanity was communally. Everyone played music with each other. There wasn’t a separate audience and performer. And dancing was always a part of music making. It was a big communal activity.

I think our nature, as you were pointing out with the mirror neurons, is to move when we hear music. To move with people and to have it be part of a group experience.

DB: Right.

DL: I’m working with a group of people with Williams Syndrome. They have a genetic abnormality and stand in contrast to people with autism who are very shy and antisocial, and they don’t seem to really understand music. People with Williams Syndrome are hypersocial and hypermusical. So you’ve got these cases where music and sociability go together in Williams Syndrome, and they fall apart in autism. It really suggests that music and sociability are part and parcel of the same thing, communication.

DB: Yeah. When I began making music professionally, I was an extremely shy person. Very kind of socially inhibited. I feel now, I’m just guessing, but I would say I had—

DL: —Aspergers?

DB: Aspergers, yes absolutely. I think probably that’s what it was.

DL: I feel that about myself sometimes.

DB: But, you know, I think I used music—I mean, maybe I just outgrew it, because I think that happens to some extent—but I also think I used music to find a way into engaging socially. I thought of it really like a hammer or a pair of pliers. It was a tool.

DL: I think what many listeners get from you is that you were a shy guy, a somewhat socially awkward guy, trying to break through. And they identify with that because everybody feels socially awkward at one time or another even if they’re homecoming queen or class president. I think the strength of your musicianship and artistry was that you were able to lay that out in the open in such a way that people saw your struggle to be social. It came out in your music and your stage presence and the persona that is David Byrne. I think that’s a powerful thing.

DB: And then I wondered, so if I heal myself what do I have to say? What’s left to do? Never mind that’s another whole thing.

DL: You probably don’t feel 100 percent.

DB: No. I don’t feel that. There’s always stuff to do and there’s always stuff to say and there are always things that engage me, that get me excited.

DL: I’m so far from healing myself that I don’t even entertain that thought!

Originally published April 30, 2007


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