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Scientist Daniel Levitin explains lobes and lyrics

The speaker fused music and science in 'This is Your Brain on Music.'

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Daniel Levitin gives a lecture called 'This Is Your Brain on Music' on Friday night in Jesse Auditorium. Levitin discussed the difference between the brains of musicians and non-musicians in his presentation.

Jianyue Xue/Photographer

March 16, 2010

Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin prepared to change people's perception about the relationship between music and science Friday in Jesse Auditorium.

The lights dimmed, and people of all backgrounds and ages crowded the auditorium. The balcony seats filled slowly, and people waited attentively for a very special talk: "This is Your Brain on Music."

The Life Sciences and Society Program started its sixth annual symposium, "From Art to Biology and Back Again," with Levitin, the keynote speaker. He combines music and science, which made him perfect for the symposium. The event was free of charge and open to the university and public.

Daniel Levitin is a neuroscientist, former professional musician and music journalist. He is the author of two New York Times best sellers: "This is Your Brain on Music" and "The World in Six Songs." He has also worked with musical artists, such as Stevie Wonder and Santana.

Levitin said our music preferences begin in the womb as the spongy infant brain absorbs all new information. From ages 12 to 15, most people develop an interest in finding themselves, and music choice becomes related to social groups and social identity.

"The older we are, the more we are set in our ways," Levitin said.

Levitin said all of us are expert music listeners by the age of five. Our infant years are sensitive periods for acquisition of musical skills, he said.

Levitin engaged the audience with a firm, calm voice in a talk paralleling artists and scientists.

He spoke about how almost every region of the brain is involved with music. His talk consisted of many visual elements and audience participation.

Levitin, not a native guitarist, said he tried playing the guitar at age 21 but Santana told him he played with an “accent.” Musical expertise, Levitin said, is similar to linguistics — the more you spend time playing music, the less apt the music is to have accents. Levitin said world-class expertise requires 10,000 hours of practice.

"More so than speech, music can represent the complexity of human emotion and its dynamic nature," Levitin said.

He said sometimes we are unable to express how we feel but the right notes in music can explain exactly how we feel. He used the example of a sad Billie Holiday song. He said people might not have been able to explain their feelings in words but upon listening to the song, they might decide, "Yes, that's how I feel."

Levitin awed the audience while speaking of neuroaesthetics, which is the scientific study of visual perceptions of music and art. He displayed a photo of a genetically engineered flower created by Eduardo Kac. The flower is partially Kac and partially petunia, part human and part flower.

Provost Brian Foster described the presentation as "wonderful, stimulating, and relatable."

Audience member Sam Babel said he didn't expect the event to be what it was.

"It was great, amazing, interesting and the flower was really cool," Babel said.

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