Here are excerpts from an interview with Dr. Daniel Levitin:

As far as music is concerned, what's more important - Nature or nurture?

Nature (genetics) certainly can confer a predisposition toward certain things. But there are many who are precocious musicians as children and never ‘make it' big when they get older, and often this is because they didn't practise enough. Nature can give you a head-start, , but nurture – practice – is absolutely essential in order to achieve musical mastery. There is the 10,000 rule: to become a world-class expert, one requires 10,000 hours of practice. It doesn't mean that if you put in that much time, you are guaranteed success. It only means that no one has ever found a case of such mastery occurring in less time – not even with Mozart or Picasso.

What exactly did your research show about people with William's syndrome?

Williams Syndrome is a brain disorder, based on a genetic transcription error. The individuals are left with a number of impairments, including an inability to reason, do simple arithmetic or understand the passing of time. But their language and music abilities are relatively in tact.

We made a number of discoveries about them. Perhaps two of the most interesting were that they tend to be more creative musically than you would think, and their brain architecture seems to be different from ours - the connectivity is actually different.

You say that even in top music schools, students are not taught to sing expressively. Can ‘expressivity' be taught?

It absolutely can be taught, just as it is taught to actors. There are some coaches who specialise in this. They can't teach you to feel things you don't feel, but they can teach you how to get in touch with those feelings and how better to express them through music or acting.

You say that a musician's state of mind should match the emotional state he is trying to express through his music. Can't a consummate professional musician sing a soulful tune well, when he is in a happy mood?

You're absolutely right. Professionals learn the tricks of conveying emotions they aren't feeling. The artist in me likes to think that they at least have to have experienced the emotions at some time, if not every time they perform.

Which came first – language or music? Is it even possible to conclude definitively either way?

Ah - glad you asked that. This is essentially the topic of my new book, ‘The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature.' The short answer is: neither. There was probably a precursor to both. My guess, though, is that this precursor was more music-like than it was language-like.

You talk of patients with Alzheimer's who are able to recall songs they liked in their teens. The reason according to you is because teenagers are ‘emotionally charged.' So why don't people with Alzheimer's recall literature or films?

They do! If you find patients in old age homes, they tend to have great memory for the films they loved as teenagers, the actors, the celebrities. The difference is that when you like a song, you tend to hear it thousands of times. If you really like a movie or a book, you see it or read it maybe half a dozen times.

In the case of those with Alzheimer's, is it possible to tap the potential of music to help them retain other kinds of memory?

This is an area of ongoing research. Yes, it's possible.

What is the connection between the cerebellum and our response to music?

The cerebellum, long thought to be primarily responsible for motor coordination, is now believed (in part based on my own research) to be involved in emotion. The cerebellum appears to be part of an emotion-reward and prediction circuit that responds to music.

Have you also studied how the brain of primates processes/responds to music?

I haven't, but colleagues of mine have. The literature is messy, which is to say, it's full of contradictions. It seems that monkeys don't even recognise the octave, which is fundamental to most human musical systems. And they prefer hearing fingernails on a chalkboard to music in many cases.

Music, like life, owes much of its charm to its mystery. Has your scientific study of music stripped it of its mystery?

Far from it - people ask me that all the time. Every time I think I'm on the cusp of uncovering the answer to one mystery, three new ones pop up to take its place, each more interesting than the previous one. If anything, my appreciation for music has increased knowing how complex it is.

(For more about Dr.Levitin's work, visit


The brain's exquisite orchestrationDecember 1, 2009

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