Asking the Wrong Questions: Neuromania, Music, and iPods

I’m not a neuroscientist, but I highly respect their work and what they can tell us. If only some neuroscientists thought the same about other disciplines (including musicology). Lately there has been a rash of claims coming from ‘Dr. Phil’ neuroscientists; that is, respectably trained neuroscientists who have become public figures and now use their notoriety to make claims not substantiated by research. The public, though, is duped into thinking that these statements must be true. The New York Times recently ran a piece about telling people how fMRI scans show that they love their iphones. This ‘neurotrash‘ generated some real backlash which you can find here. I’m writing this to at least help set the record straight on certain statements on music made under the guise of neuroscience, and in the hopes that people stop making reductionist arguments about brain studies and see that music is a complex social activity.

Music has been particularly prone to these sorts of outrageous claims. The best known incident is of course the ‘Mozart Effect’, the never to be duplicated 1993 study without a control group that found a temporary rise in spatial reasoning in grad students after listening to some classical music. The notion caught public attention, though, was expanded on in Don Campbell’s 1997 book The Mozart Effect, went so far that the Georgia governor asked for funding for a new Mozart album for every newborn child, and spun off into all of the baby Mozart edu-toy junk around today sold to parents as ways to make kids smarter without having to interact with them. Well, Don Campbell is at it again. In an interview at, he says all sorts of problematic things. But that’s not even the most egregious neuroscience and music post this week, so I’ll leave Don Campbell for now.

I’ve been heavily critical of Daniel Levitin (at McGill, author of mass market book ‘This is your brain on music’) in conference presentations and in a couple writings hopefully to press before too long. To his credit, Levitin does use current neuroscience to discredit things like the ‘Mozart Effect’. In his aforementioned book, Levitin usually starts a chapter with the latest in neuroscience, and shows that many previous assumptions about music and the brain were incorrect, and that current studies are inconclusive. He then goes on to say why the music he prefers (‘classic’ rock) is the most pleasing to the brain. In short, Levitin does well summarizing neuroscience research (from what I can tell being a non-neuroscientist), but then draws conclusions not at all based on his research but his own preferences and assumptions. In that process, he speaks with the authority of science things that cultural musicologists like myself know are more complex or just plain wrong.

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the iPod, and so the New York Times interviewed Levitin. They asked him all the wrong questions! The sort of cultural questions they asked him should have been answered by a musicologist or sociologist. I can think of plenty of other better people to interview, but instead they interviewed him. I’ve attached the interview below, with my own comments in [bold in square brackets].


Oct. 23 is the 10th anniversary of the iPod. Daniel Levitin reflects on the little gizmo and the many ways it has changed our lives — and the way we listen.

Has the iPod brought more music — more rhythm — into our lives? [not a neuroscience question] Yes. The average 12-year-old can hold in her hand more songs than my great-grandfather would have heard in his entire lifetime. Also, digital music is a great democratizing force for musicians. They no longer have to go through the narrow turnstile of record companies. [this is highly debatable...]

Does listening to music through headphones — rather than loudspeakers — affect what we hear? Headphones potentially offer greater clarity, but at the loss of power and low bass response. Another difference with headphones — a team of researchers in Britain just reported that using headphones reduces your sense of personal space on subways: you’re willing to let someone stand closer to you if you’ve got your tunes playing. [research yes, but social research not neuroscience]

Does listening to an iPod affect your hearing? Adolescents routinely listen to their iPods at levels exceeding 95 to 100 decibels. That’s about the same loudness you’d hear standing near the tarmac as a 747 takes off. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health allows only eight hours a day of 85 decibels in the workplace; more than that, you’re going to damage your hearing. The hair cells in the ear are very delicate. Once damaged, they usually don’t recover. [Hmm. Was there any other device that let you carry around music before an ipod. Oh yes, the walkman! Most of these questions could have been asked about that device]

Is iPod sound quality better or worse than a basic home stereo system? Worse. The MP3 standard ruined high fidelity. It’s possible to upload CD-quality onto the iPod. But most people opt for the default, lousy quality of MP3 and M4A compression. An entire generation has grown up never knowing high fidelity, never hearing what the artists heard in the studio when they were recording. This is a real shame. [The value of hi-fi is not about neuroscience. I've been a studio musician, and hi-fi or not, a mastered recording is not the same as what you hear in the studio when you are multi-tracking.]

In your book “This Is Your Brain on Music,” you say music works like a drug. Say more. Listening to music with others [but not alone?] causes the release of oxytocin, a chemical associated with feelings of trust and bonding. That’s partly why music listeners become so connected to the artists they like. Plus, the nucleus accumbens — the brain’s well-known pleasure center — modulates levels of dopamine, the so-called feel-good hormone. (This same brain structure is active when people have sex, or when cocaine addicts take cocaine.)

Can music have mood-altering effects? Lots of people use music for emotional regulation. It’s similar to the way people use drugs such as caffeine and alcohol: they play a certain kind of music to help get them going in the morning, another kind to unwind after work. Brain surgeons perform their most concentration-intensive procedures while music plays in the background. [Another socio-cultural response]

iPods change the way we “share” music. For one thing, we don’t listen together. So? Music listening used to be an activity that we did with great ceremony. We’d invite friends over and sit down, pass the album cover around, study the artwork. And when the record started, we’d listen intently together and do nothing else. In short: music listening was deeply social. The iPod has turned music listening into a mostly solitary experience. [this is the worst answer of the bunch. 'The past' simply sounds like what he did as a teenager. There was music before recordings, but since it didn't affect him it likely doesn't matter. A scientist needs no knowledge of history, right? And what seems more social to you - sitting down and listening quietly or dancing to music?]

iPod Shuffle lets us listen to music in more or less random order. Does this make any difference in how we listen? Shuffle has given us a new way of listening: mashes, or songs that we might not otherwise put together. When it works, it’s fabulous — we hear Billie Holiday followed by Jimi Hendrix and we can hear the connection between them. But when it doesn’t work it’s disorienting, pulling us out of the hypnotic reverie that good music programming induces. [Another answer that could have been from anyone you pulled off the street]

iPod owners tend to download singles instead of albums. What is the effect of that? An obvious loss: the album. For decades, artists assembled and sequenced songs to make a larger musical statement, the height of which resulted in concept albums, from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” to Green Day’s “American Idiot.” Breaking an album up into singles disrupts the artists’ original intention for the work. Also, we tend to lose the opportunity to discover songs that don’t jump out at first. [So, maybe it's time to look at history again - even in popular music, the album is a development. Pre-1960 was all about the single]

Any science on why certain songs get stuck in our heads? Scientists call them earworms. We don’t really know anything about the why of them, but we know something about the what. Usually they’re songs that are melodically and rhythmically simple — most people don’t have the “Ring” cycle stuck up there — and it’s usually just a short loop. [so scientists have gotten around to calling them something, but that's as far as it seems they have gotten. Great work there!]

How do we get rid of those songs? The tried-and-true way is to think of another song and hope that pushes out the first one. Here: think of “It’s a Small World After All.” [not only did you make me angry with this interview and cause me to waste productive time on this blog post, but now I've got that song in my head. Thanks a lot!]

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