Thinking Outside the (Musical) Box

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Martin Grant, Dean of Science

Last week I went to southern Ontario. Dan Levitin, one of our psychology professors, gave talks on Wednesday in Toronto and Thursday in Hamilton. Dan is a neuroscientist who studies how the brain reacts to music, amongst other things. He is a renowned scientist, and in addition to his academic papers he has recently published two popular books on music and the brain.

Both events were packed. People who like music like it a lot, and they want to understand it better. My job was to introduce Dan. I’ve presented Dan to audiences in the past and heard him speak on many occasions. Although remarks had been prepared for me, I confess to using my introductory duties as opportunities to share my sense of the fundamental strangeness of the topic of music and the brain, and provide a subtext for Dan’s talks.

After all, although it is not uncommon for a neuroscientist to study the interaction of music and the brain, have you heard of neuroscientists studying other arts: the neuroscience of sculpture, or the neuroscience of stand-up comedy, for example? I am sure neuroscientists sometimes study the brain’s interaction with others arts, but these occasions are as rare as hen’s teeth compared with the study of music and the brain. Indeed, it is hard to comprehend the otherness of music, the strangest of all our arts, and its direct route to the brain.

Here is a thought experiment which I believe makes this clear.

Imagine a visitor from another planet and—to keep the academic context clear—imagine our interplanetary visitor is conducting research for a PhD on various forms of art in other cultures. Our visitor would understand painting quickly and readily. A painting is, in broad strokes (excuse me if I slip into bad puns as I frame my argument), a representation of what we see . Our visitor would note that paintings represent that spectrum of light visible to us, somewhat over-coloured in red, yellow, and blue due to our eyes’ particular sensitivity to that palette.

Of course, a painting is not a random snapshot of what is “outside” in the world. In fact, there is an emotional and intellectual resonance “inside” our minds—or more prosaically, in our brains—from which comes the choice of subject or the manner of presentation. This is wherein lies the art, but its root is representational. The same could be said (and so our visitor would observe) of plays, sculpture, and indeed of most arts: the artifact would be some representation of what is outside—exaggerated or highlighted somehow—which has an emotional and intellectual resonance inside.

Now think of how our interplanetary PhD candidate would observe the musical performance of a string quartet. As one musician begins playing, our visitor might compare the performance to watching a master mathematician at a blackboard, flawlessly writing equation after equation after complex equation. Then, as the other musicians begin, it would be as if our mathematician is joined by three others, each writing varied but related theorems at other blackboards. All in synchrony.

But this is not the strange part. No, what’s bizarre about all this is the audience. Because as the equations multiplied on the blackboards, our visitor would notice that the people watching our four mathematicians would experience intense feelings of joy, followed by feelings of loss, then elation again, and so on, as they followed the tracings of algebra. This is strange.

Presumably our visitor would conclude that the representational part of music, based on what is “outside” in the world, is minimal. Our visitor would realize that musical performance is not a snapshot of a natural soundscape. Most likely the visitor would conclude that what happened to the string quartet audience, the intense reaction I described, was “inside” the audience’s minds, and that the snapshot taken—however exaggerated or highlighted with emotional and intellectual resonance—was a snapshot of their brains.

That is music, and the direct route it has to our brains. To understand music then is to understand the neuroscience of the brain. I recommend to you Dan’s two popular books, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession and The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, as well as his scientific articles at

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