By: Clive Thompson
Music of the Hemispheres (page 3)
In another, similar experiment the clarinetist fell silent for a few bars. This time the viewers watching the video maintained a higher level of excitement because they could see that he was gearing up to launch into a new passage. The audio-only listeners had no such visual cues, and they regarded the silence as much less exciting.
This spring Dr. Levitin began an even more involved experiment to determine how much emotion is conveyed by live performers. In April he took participants in a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert — the conductor Keith Lockhart, five of the musicians and 15 audience members — and wired them with sensors to measure their state of arousal, including heart rate, body movements and muscle tension.
At one point during the performance Mr. Lockhart swung his wrist with such force that a sensor attached to his cuff went flying off. Dr. Levitin’s team tried to reattach it with duct tape, until the conductor objected — “Did you just put duct tape on an Armani?” he asked — and lighter surgical tape was used instead.
The point of the experiment is to determine whether the conductor creates noticeable changes in the emotional tenor of the performance. Dr. Levitin says he suspects there’s a domino effect: the conductor becomes particularly animated, transmits this to the orchestra and then to the audience, in a matter of seconds. Mr. Lockhart is skeptical. “As a conductor,” he said, “I’m a causatory force for music, but I’m not a causatory force for emotion.” But Dr. Levitin is still crunching the data.
“It might not turn out to be like that,” he said, “But wouldn’t it be cool if it did?”
Dr. Levitin’s work has occasionally undermined some cherished beliefs about music. For example recent years have seen an explosion of “Baby Mozart” videos and toys, based on the idea — popular since the ’80s — that musical and mathematical ability are inherently linked.
But Dr. Levitin argued that this could not be true, based on his study of people with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that leaves people with low intelligence. Their peak mental capacities are typically those of young child, with no ability to calculate quantities.
Dr. Levitin once asked a woman with Williams to hold up her hand for five seconds; she left it in the air for a minute and a half. “No concept of time at all,” he said, “and definitely no math.”
Yet people with Williams possess unusually high levels of musical ability. One Williams boy Dr. Levitin met was so poorly coordinated he could not open the case to his clarinet. But once he was holding the instrument, his coordination problems vanished, and he could play fluidly.
Music cannot be indispensably correlated with math, Dr. Levitin noted, if Williams people can play music. He is now working on a study that compares autistics — some of whom have excellent mathematical ability, but little musical ability — to people with Williams; in the long run, he said, he thinks it could help shed light on why autistic brains develop so differently.
Not all of Dr. Levitin’s idea have been easily accepted. He argues, for example, that music is an evolutionary adaptation: something that men developed as a way to demonstrate reproductive fitness. (Before you laugh, consider the sex lives of today’s male rock stars.) Music also helped social groups cohere. “Music has got to be useful for survival, or we would have gotten rid of it years ago,” he said.
But Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard known for his defense of evolutionary psychology, has publicly disparaged this idea. Dr. Pinker has called music “auditory cheesecake,” something pleasant but not evolutionarily nutritious.
If it is a sexual signal for reproduction, then why, Dr. Pinker asked, does “a 60-year-old woman enjoy listening to classical music when she’s alone at home?” Dr. Levitin wrote an entire chapter refuting Dr. Pinker’s arguments; when I asked Dr. Pinker about Dr. Levitin’s book he said he hadn’t read it.
Nonetheless Dr. Levitin plugs on, and sometimes still plugs in. He continues to perform music, doing several gigs a year with Diminished Faculties, a ragtag band composed entirely of professors and students at McGill.
On a recent December afternoon members assembled in a campus ballroom to do a sound check for their performance that evening at a holiday party. Playing a blue Stratocaster, Dr. Levitin crooned the Chris Isaak song “Wicked Game.” “I’m not a great guitarist, and I’m not a great singer,” he said.
But he is not bad, either, and still has those producer’s ears. When “Wicked Game” ended, the bass player began noodling idly, playing the first few notes of a song that seemed instantly familiar to all the younger students gathered. “That’s Nirvana, right?” Dr. Levitin said, cocking his head and squinting. “ ‘Come As You Are.’ I love that song.”