Music Reinvigorates Brain

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Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin discusses benefits of neurologic music therapy at UM Bank United Center as part of the Stamps Distinguished Visitors Series.

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Dr. Daniel Levitin meets with music therapy students from Frost School of Music after his lecture at the UM BankUnited Center.

Neurologic Music Therapy Research Expands Understanding of the Human Brain.

March 4, 2011—By Julia Berg
About 20 years ago, a young indie rock ‘n’ roll producer sat in a San Francisco Bay recording studio while Carlos Santana recorded a new album…and he felt goose-bumps.

Even though it is a common physical reaction, the producer, Daniel Levitin (who also worked with Stevie Wonder and such groups as Blue Oyster Cult) found himself fixated on figuring out WHY we have physical reactions such as goose bumps when listening to great music.

After the Santana project wrapped, Levitin audited a class at nearby Stanford to learn more about the field of neuroscience, and soon after entered a fascinating new field of research focusing specifically on music and the brain, ultimately earning a Ph.D.

Now a leading expert on the subject, he is the James McGill Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada with additional appointments in music theory, computer science and education.  The author of the best-selling “This is Your Brain on Music” and “The World in Six Songs,” Dr. Levitin enthralled an audience of 400 at the University of Miami’s BankUnited Center on March 3 as a guest lecturer for the Frost School of Music’s 2011 Stamps Family Charitable Foundation Distinguished Visitors Series.

Still an active guitarist, producer and songwriter, Levitin believes that music “reinvents and reinvigorates the brain.” His research is used in clinical settings to help study and rehabilitate damaged brains, and has brought significant international attention to the type of neurologic music therapy research that is being done by Shannon de l’Etoile and Teresa Lesiuk at the UM Frost School of Music in conjunction with the UM Miller School of Medicine.

During the lecture, he also summarized research findings on musical expertise, and what gives rise to the “super-genius” in music.

He notes that “all of us are expert music listeners: by the age of five, most children have internalized rules about which chord progressions are “legal” or typical of their culture’s music.” 

Recognizing that the brain has a “music acquisition device” similar to the “language acquisition device” that enables the human brain to acquire language skills in any language (there are over 6,000 languages currently in use throughout the world), he notes that studies have shown that if music is denied to a young person in the first 10 years of life, he/she may never be musical, just like if language is denied during the first 10 years of life.

So, conversely, what gives rise to the rare super-genius in music?

“Music engages more regions of the brain than anything else,” Levitin explains, but “musical expertise manifests in many ways.”  Those who play and study music do not all become super-geniuses, but more often develop an “expertise domain” in a dominant musical area such as rhythm, pitch, playing and instrument, composing, arranging, or professional listening (such as DJs, hit-makers and producers).
He also explains that language researchers define “expert” as being superior in things that we socially care about, such as emotions, music, art, intellect, and athletics…and not things that we don’t care much about, like being good at crossing your arms.

“Brain studies also indicate that components of expertise that contribute to superior performance include memory, attention, will power, belief in self, physical configuration and an ability to view multiple failures as necessary steps to succeed,” and that these qualities manifest themselves in musical geniuses, as well as geniuses in other fields.

So, music students…rev your engines.  Activate your auditory cortex to invigorate your brain, engage your brain in all musical domains, and take your audiences on a scenic brain journey.  You’ll maximize your musical expertise and invigorate your brain.

Follow Daniel Levitin’s research blog at

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