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Ear Wars: Biology of Music

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

How do our brains know what to do with music?  Is the ability to distinguish music part of human DNA?  Best selling author, neuroscientist and musician Daniel J. Levitin returns to our studio with Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker to talk about the biology of music. 

Weigh in: Tell us about a time when your own emotional response to music surprised you. Leave a comment.

Daniel J. Levitin and Adam Gopnik will speak at the 92nd Street Y on February 9th. More information here.


Adam Gopnik and Daniel J. Levitin

Comments [28]

Lexi from Florida

Though I am only 15 years old, I have a strong emotional connection to music. Playing several instruments in my high school band, I tend to lean towards Classical style music. Sometimes when I play my instruments, I tear up and I can feel it, almost radiating through my entire body. Even when I listen to music with lyrics, I tend to focus more on the music itself, and not the words. I hate music that other kids listen to my age. Rappers and such take away from what music really is.

Feb. 09 2011 10:29 PM
Pearl from Mount Vernon, NY

techno pop makes my nerves stand on edge, like nails on a chalkboard.

Feb. 09 2011 02:35 PM
a g from n j

i find it very hard to have a conversation with someone, if, there is a song i like playing in the background. a lot of people, can make that seperation,i can't.

@ david from hempstead - the hormonal connection is strong. to the poster who does not believe so,that's just a sad testament to todays music. plus, music is much more disperse now. we don't have a country wide, collective listening experience, as much as we used to. just as we used to watch, the same t.v. programs collectively, on three networks.

Feb. 09 2011 02:34 PM
DJ from NYC

You asked about music that moves us. Much music does move me, but Leonard Bernstein's Mass always chokes me up in many parts of it. I suppose partly because I associate it with JFK. But I think before I even knew what it was (who wrote it and what for), I even then (as always) felt a grabbing in my throat or chest and want to cry with joy and sorrow - both at the same time. Perhaps the lyrics also add to the moving experience, but I think it's really also the music

Feb. 09 2011 02:34 PM

I'm a native New Yorker and speak some but not a lot of Spanish. In the 80's, as a young woman, I heard Salsa for the first time and I knew this music was for me! I still feel that way, and now I also adore Bachata. It's a gut emotional reaction.

Feb. 09 2011 02:34 PM
Dylan from Brooklyn

Regarding how lyrics and the music play off as either a confluence or tension, I think of not only the way songs in other languages can resonate with a speaker ignorant of, say, French (see Yves Montad), but I wonder how bands like Sigur Ros, who openly admit including, along with Icelandic or English lyrics, 'nonsense' lyrics (or sounds on the verge of sounding like lyrics) fit into this supposed lyrics-music connection.

Feb. 09 2011 02:33 PM

Beethoven's Joy
Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah
these two the for me the most moving

Feb. 09 2011 02:33 PM
Frank Grimaldi from East Village

Music has always triggered emotions and memories. "Needle and the Damage done" always makes me feel extremely lonely. If I hear a Sly Stone Song or a Rascals song - I automatically feel like it's the middle of summer - It can be the coldest winter day but my minds eye will always see summer sunsets.

Feb. 09 2011 02:33 PM

I recently started to accept that not everyone responds to music like me. I cry when music moves me. Music can bring a person to a deeper level of consciousness in a split second. From Taverner to Joni Mitchell. Sometimes I think music is God, and I am an atheist!

Feb. 09 2011 02:33 PM
sher from Manhattan

What did Puccini know intuitively about how certain chords will pierce our emotional brain to the core? Whether corny and heard many, many times, and even Before the sad parts in La Boheme, provokes tears just to hear the music?!

Feb. 09 2011 02:29 PM
linda from manasquan

strangely, 3 songs moved me in my life

Low Spark of High Heel Boys - Traffic - in the 70's
Pie Jesu (requiem)- in the 80's
in a daydream- freddy jones band - in the 90's

Feb. 09 2011 02:28 PM
Charlie Roberts from Highlands, NJ

I'm learning a lot from this program . . . especially why I was immediately attracted to Paul Thorn's ( words (stories) and music.

It was both new and familiar right from the start.

BTW, he'll be in the City on Friday evening with his band at B.B. King's for Al Kooper's 67th birthday bash.

Check him out . . . and when you see me, you're gonna thank me!


Feb. 09 2011 02:28 PM
Mitch from Manhattan

Music is not a "universal language", but music is universal. The deep emotional and spiritual resonance of music with people around the world is the trigger of a connection with our biological and universal history. It's as close as most humans will get to literally sensing the stardust that makes up our bodies and the philogeny of the human species.

Feb. 09 2011 02:28 PM

Isn't spoken language also music?

Feb. 09 2011 02:27 PM

strangely, 3 songs moved me in my life

Low Spark of High Heel Boys - Traffic - in the 70's
Pie Jesu (requiem)- in the 80's
in a daydream- freddy jones band - in the 90's

Feb. 09 2011 02:27 PM

I always experience an emotional response when I hear a IV chord change from major to minor. It always catches my ear and has an effect on me.

Feb. 09 2011 02:27 PM


Feb. 09 2011 02:27 PM
Lori from Montclair, NJ

Not sure why exactly but Stevie Wonder's "As" got me through my mother's funeral day. Blasted it on the way there, between funeral home and and burial, etc. It covers a range of emotion and I found it both comforting and cathartic.

Feb. 09 2011 02:27 PM


Feb. 09 2011 02:27 PM
DarkSymbolist from NYC

I used to not be able to listen to Dead Can Dance's "Host of the Seraphim" sung by Lisa Gerrard without getting very emotional for years.

Feb. 09 2011 02:26 PM
pat from brooklyn

i experienced a brain injury 5 years ago which seems to have taken away my ability to enjoy music. a former music lover (i even worked in a music shop) it doesn't move me, or motivate me to listen. i have boxes of cd's i haven't listen to in years. i wonder if there is a way to regain this -what seems to me literally-an ability. i am bereft at the memory of the pleasure i used to experience.

Feb. 09 2011 02:25 PM

What about the cognitive aspect of music/song? The semantic content of the lyrics surely has a role to play that is different from the emotional impact of music. Believe it or not, novelty songs are often better than the vapid originals they parody precisely because of the witty lyrics that the originals lack.

Feb. 09 2011 02:22 PM
Tim McCorry from Belmar, NJ

Dear Mr. Levitin,
Currently enjoying "Your Brain On Music" which was a Christmas present from my daughter Diana. Why do you suppose that when I heard Bob Dylan as a kid, I am somewhat ashamed to admit, I was not impressed. When my daughter became a Dylan freak, I listened anew and now love the guy?

Feb. 09 2011 02:21 PM
Ro from Manhattan

Excuse me - opiates...???
Did one of your guests not mean serotonin...? If you are going to speak in 'scientific terms' please, please at least get it right in the very simplest way: terminology!

Feb. 09 2011 02:19 PM
David from West Hempstead

I'm in my early twenties and I hate the bulk of what my generation considers "popular," so I'm not sure that I buy that suggestion that embracing pop is the hallmark of adolescence.

Feb. 09 2011 02:19 PM
Inquisigal from Brooklyn

Your guest's comment about his teenaged son's love of the Strokes as part of his generation is way off; I'm 42, and like the Strokes. I don't buy his thesis.

Feb. 09 2011 02:18 PM
a g from n j

i've always found people, that just listen to one type of music, to be boring and generally lacking a great degree of curiosity. additionally,they are often followers of a set type of sound, because, it would be seen as uncool, to do otherwise. in other words,one can't divorce social conditioning from musical taste. some people seem to have a greater ability, or desire, to break out of their pre-conceived boxes.

Feb. 09 2011 02:15 PM

your guest just described what makes dance music and techno so listenable and enjoyable for 10 hours at a time

novelty couched deeply in the familiar. 32 beats and change.

Feb. 09 2011 02:11 PM

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