Illustration by Fanny Luor

The mind at work

The Mind at Work: Daniel Levitin on the secret life of the musical brain


Published on October 21, 2019

A conversation with neuroscientist Daniel Levitin about how our love of music shaped the brain’s ability to perform at the highest levels.

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When you’re writing an email, could you be writing a song? Or, conversely, is office work a distant genetic relation to music, as it is to cooking?

What if music shaped the brain’s evolution in really powerful ways that still affect our day-to-day experience of work? It’s not that we want to be drumming in the board room, but the sense of rhythmic control musicians have, the story telling of melody, the mastery of tone, the inventions of harmony—these are all things that non-musicians also aspire to at work. 

Cognitive neuroscientist, author, and songwriter Daniel Levitin understands both sides of this equation. He wrote the book This is Your Brain on Music which updated the way we think about music and followed up with an excellent book on songwriting and brain evolution through the lens of music, The World in Six Songs. He then tackled habits of mind—not only those of musicians, but primarily of CEOs—with The Organized Mind in 2014. Along with lots of insights into how high-performing people use time, space, and attention to accelerate their impact, it was also a stealth handbook for using Bayesian statistical thinking to solve everyday problems.

We can think of anything in terms of statistical probabilities, but the Bayesian approach is to update a model based on statistical inputs. This is how neuroscientist Karl Friston thinks about the brain, and how cognitive psychologist Alison Gopnik thinks about how babies learn. In fact, Bayesian networks, first developed by Judea Pearl in 1985, underlie most contemporary approaches to AI and machine learning.

Levitin introduces this technique in The Organized Mind as a decision making tool to assess things like cost benefit analysis or base rate likelihood of outcomes. But Bayesian thinking underlies our experience of music as well. Much of Levitin’s work has been involved in neurocartography—identifying the functional areas in the brain responsible for music cognition. A more general form of that cartography has been partly achieved by the human connectome project, which has also now expanded into studying difference in these connections across life spans and under specific disease conditions.

We’re far from understanding how all these connections work but large networks grow in characteristic ways and one of those characteristics is emergent complexity. So that means to find out how the brain works, you also have to figure out how it got here. And this leads us back to music and how music could have been so evolutionarily useful to us, 50,000 years ago.

That’s how long it can take for an adaptation to show up in the human genome. So music must have made something—or many things—much better for humans that we devoted so much time and attention to it. So much so that making music caused our brains to grow in new ways. Along with the contention that cooking made us human, and caring for our children made us human, we now add music as well, thanks in no small part to Levitin’s work.

There are many theories of the evolutionary advantages conferred on us by music. Levitin characterizes these uses as six types of songs: friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge, and love. These represent the ways that music has been useful to humanity, but also have shaped our individual and collective brains. Levitin does not put all of his Darwinian eggs in the single basket of reproductive fitness, but instead shows that each of these capabilities increased the social bonding and organization of knowledge that has made us such an evolutionary success (so far).

Generating complex behavior from simple rules is the engine of evolution throughout all of nature.

Learning music means paying attention to time in very particular ways. It means listening deeply. It means being finely attuned to the actions of others. It also means learning the rules and statistical patterns that generate what we understand as music. Generating patterns based on statistical rules also underlies that other great human capability—speech and language. We have physical evidence of the antiquity of music in the form a 50,000 year old bone flute, and no equivalent for language. Whichever came first, what they have in common is that music and language are both generative. Generating complex behavior from simple rules is the engine of evolution throughout all of nature. 

There’s also evidence that learning to make advanced stone tools led to significant growth of the size of early human brains and bodies by making nutrient-dense foods more available. The cognitive networks in the brain associated with those tool-making abilities, almost 2 million years ago, are the same networks that we now use to play the piano. For language, there is no comparable artifact from that period for us to reverse engineer. But we can see where some aspects of music started a very long time ago.

It’s in the ways that human brains grew in co-evolution with music and dance that brings us back to master musicians and CEOs. “The level of intellect is astonishing,” Levitin says. He’s spent much of his life in top academic institutions, but he says, “I've seen business executives and musicians just tear into problems 15 levels deeper.” But for artists, chief executives, top athletes, and other high-performing people, they are motivated by the work itself. They go 15 levels deeper, he points out, “on the problems that interest them.” 

Levitin calls this a “super analytical ability.” It’s the ability to hold many dimensions of a problem in your mind simultaneously and explore their changing relationships over time. This could be describing a jazz solo or an investment strategy, but the ability to develop such deep hierarchical knowledge of a domain evolved along with music. The effect over the millennia is that our brains became very organized in particular ways which enabled us to encode information much more efficiently—and encode more of it.

“Your memory and attention and perception are structured so that you have these slots to put things in,” he says. “You're seeing patterns. You've seen them before. That's not just some pretty music that went by. That's a 2-5-1 progression.” Levitin sees that same kind of organized mind in business, for example, “You recognize the profit curve going up according to a mathematical function that you've seen before and it tells you that the brand is becoming globalized.” 

This kind of deep understanding of a problem space is not just about the neocortex. It’s not just about higher function, but deeper networks of neurochemicals that connect what our senses experience with what our minds tells us is going on. A lot has been made (and much more left out) about dopamine as a key part of the brain’s reward system. “It's just one of 50 to 100 chemicals that we have in our brains and bodies,” reminds Levitin, “and it's the one that we've got the tools to look for.”

“Maybe, in fact, every neurochemical has to do with salience, telling you what's important and what's not.”—Daniel Levitin

Neuroscientist Karl Friston has a theory that brain learns about the world by constantly testing ways to minimize surprise. To take the Fristonian perspective, neurotransmitters like dopamine signal sensations that are diverging from our expectations. Levitin agrees that “maybe, in fact, every neurochemical has to do with salience, telling you what's important and what's not, and in different ways and for different kinds of things.” The picture that emerges is of a 50 or 100 dimensional space that is moving in and out of phase with itself over time in more or less organized ways in response to its environment.

Okay. That’s a lot. Tuning back into music, somehow all of this neural material managed to evolve very quickly into an analytical instrument. For a songwriter, Levitin says, “you're trying to hit some kind of sweet spot where you're rewarding your listener enough of the time by meeting their expectations but you're still challenging them some of the time by surprising them. And in order to do this,” he concludes, “you have to have a pretty well worked out implicit model of how likely certain chord progressions are.”

And this returns to the deeper connection between CEOs and songwriters. So much of having an impact is emotional. The expressiveness of a performance, the judgement about a leadership decision. These are deep, multidimensional intelligences. But, like playing an instrument, these intelligences are mastery within a limited domain. “They kind of let go of certain things that are not interesting or relevant or useful to them,” Levitn says of these high-performers, “and I think that plays into this whole idea of being neurally efficient and effective.”

The connection between musical training and enhanced executive function is well-known and fairly uncontroversial. But ten minutes of Mozart is… ten minutes of Mozart! It’s the time commitment to an instrument or performance discipline that creates that effect. To get to 10,000 hours or whatever threshold of mastery you have enter into a feedback loop with yourself and the sound you’re making. 

A lot of the benefit of music, of course, is the pleasure we get from listening to it. Since music evolved along with all these other things that made us human, it connects us to those deeper emotions. And as with many things in the brain, some of the areas involved in making music are also stimulated by listening to it. 

Music has been doing this for us for over 50,000 years, so what can we do in our day to day now to take advantage of this transformative power?

Certainly if you play an instrument or sing, or if you like to dance or work out, physically participating with music can be energizing or calming, uplifting or cathartic. Even learning to play simple songs is a great way to switch your brain into a more concentrated and sensorially aware mode.

When it comes to music at work, Levitin advises to use music responsibly. Many of us are pretty stressed out at work, and we take great comfort in music. “There are probably a lot of things that can act as a salve against information overload,” he says. “Music is one of them, but it doesn't have special magical properties that nothing else in the universe has.” Putting on headphones has become reflexive in our increasingly open offices. “But generally if you're listening to music while you're working, you're under the illusion that it's helping you to work, and in most cases it's not,” he warns. “It's providing a distraction and it's more fun to work with music playing, but you're usually not as productive or efficient. I think that it interferes with being able to sustain attention in the long run.”

How then to work music into your workday? The key is how intellectually demanding your work is, and for how much of the time. If you do a lot of deep work, Levitin suggests, “and you need to hit a reset button or you need some inspiration, I would say close your eyes, listen to music five, ten, fifteen minutes, and then go back to the task—but don't do them both at the same time.” The kinds of activities where listening to music is beneficial are where work is repetitive but not really cognitively demanding, and maintaining a safe level of attention is challenging, like long-distance trucking. “What you need then is something that will keep your physiological arousal levels high enough if there's a situational change that requires you be alert and at the top of your game.” 

Being able to effectively do your job with “sound on” may be a sign that the work itself is not challenging or consuming enough to provide long-term satisfaction. What we learn from music is that deep cognitive engagement furthers our focus for managing complexity. It’s our willingness to spend the time to deepen our knowledge and abilities that ultimately turns into our mastery. So it was for Levitin with music, neuroscience, and writing: “I just always did things that interested me and love to do, and the kinds of things I've pursued were things that I liked so much I would do them if nobody paid me.”