Neuron Culture

I’ve been interested in music and science since taking a physics of music class back in college (20 years later, amazingly, I discovered my violin teacher of 2000, Kevin Bushee, was married to the daughter of the professor who taught that class), so I was intrigued to find this Wired piece in which neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, formerly a rock producer, talks about the neuroscience of music.


Brain excited by music. Image by Daniel Levitin, from Wired story on his work.

As it happens, the piece carries a bonus for anyone following the debate over whether talent or genius is innate — an ongoing argument that Jonah Lehrer’s Seed article, “How to Get to Carnegie Hall,” recently fanned into flame. Levitin concurs with Lehrer (and most students of expertise) in saying that there’s no innate gift for music. “We”ve debunked the myth of talent,” he tells Wired. “It doesn’t appear that there’s anything like a music gene or center in the brain that Stevie Wonder has that nobody else has.”

As noted, Lehrer’s article has more on this. I’ve got an article on the same subject — with some overlap, but not too much to make either Lehrer or me uncomfortable, I trust — coming out in New Scientist next month. I’ll post it here when it’s out. In the meantime, the Wired story on Levitin makes good reading, as does both Lehrer’s article and his blog follow-ups.

I should mention that Levitin has a new book out, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, with a rather entertaining website. I suspect Levitin is the only person to get jacket puffs from both Oliver Sacks and the producer of Clash.


  1. #1 small and gray
    August 23, 2006

    While this is a fascinating debate, it’s not entirely clear that it makes sense to distinguish between genetic and environmental contributions when it comes to ‘genius’. There are some theoretical and practical issues that make operationalizing these notions very difficult. I wrote a bit about this here in response to Jonah Lehrer’s piece. While I don’t come down hard on one side or the other, I think the relative absence of behavioral genetic data bearing on this debate is a problem worth thinking about before drawing any strong conclusions.

    On an unrelated note, I really enjoyed your piece on Mayberg! (Just read it on a plane a couple of days ago.)

  2. #2 Pi Guy
    August 24, 2006

    Cool interview. I suspect that you’re aware that Mr. Levitan has written a book titled “This is Your Brain on Music” where he elaborates on the brain-mind dichotomy and, more generally, the relationship between music and science. I recommend it.

  3. #3 Shawn Decker
    August 26, 2006

    I’m a musician in Chicago (and incidentally an old college buddy of David’s) who has worked in Computer music and electronic media for 30 odd years now. I have often heard that musicians make really good programmers – in many labs doing electronic media around Chicago, the programmers are often musicians who began programming computers late in life, and had none of the normally associated background education (i.e. mathematics). I heard on a NPR radio program that explored this very issue (I think it was a local WBEZ Chicago program) that music and programming both use the same part of the brain – the part responsible for “visual symbolic manipulation”. David, have you or anyone else ran across more on this? Perhaps this is already well explored territory, and I just don’t know about it.

    Shawn Decker
    School of the Art inst. of Chicago

  4. #4 David Dobbs
    August 27, 2006

    Good question, Shawn. I do my best to answer it in the next post, Do Musicians Make Good Programmers?

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