Daniel Levitin’s Musical Mind
Producer and writer Daniel Levitin’s lifelong love of music has served him both in recordings and on the page.
Daniel Levitin is a respected neuroscientist and music producer, known for his bestselling books about the psychology of music and other topics.
Born in 1957 in San Francisco, Levitin attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Berklee School of Music, but dropped out to pursue a music career. After playing with a succession of bands and founding acclaimed music label 415 Records, Levitin returned to academia, studying cognitive psychology at Stanford University and the University of Oregon.
A professor emeritus of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal, Levitin has written several well-regarded popular works, including This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (2006), which spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. His most recent work, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives, was published in 2020.
As a musician, he has performed with David Byrne, Sting, Bobby McFerrin, and other major artists and worked on albums by Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, and Joni Mitchell and on the films Good Will Hunting and Pulp Fiction.
In 1976, Daniel Levitin dropped out of MIT to pursue a life in music. It’s worked out pretty well. He transitioned from performing to producing, and, in the process, became insatiably curious about the psychology of music. So he went back to school, got his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD in psychology, and became a respected college professor and public intellectual, who would publish three consecutive New York Times bestsellers. All the while, Levitin has continued to be profoundly touched by music, and, sometimes, in mysterious ways.
Daniel Levitin: For so many of us, trying to explain feelings is difficult. I find we have an inadequate vocabulary to explain how we’re feeling. You’re rarely just happy and nothing else. It’s happy with a little sense of foreboding. Or it’s bittersweet—it’s happy and sad. I think that complex mixture of emotions is why we turn to art in general, and why we turn to music, in particular. I put on a Joni Mitchell song, and I go, “Oh yeah, that’s how I’m feeling! Thank you, Joni.”
But early on, music served important social functions, among them, acting as an honest signal: evolutionary biology’s term for a sign of physical fitness that cannot be faked.
Levitin: In the kinds of ways that music was practiced for tens of thousands of years, it involved a lot of improvisation—singing for hours on end, coupled with dancing. And you couldn’t have neurological impairment, or have cognitive defects, or physical defects, to be that musical, in the hunter-gatherer days.
Levitin says that, these days, it’s emotional honesty that sets great musicians apart. And it’s his job as a producer to bring it out.
Levitin: Knowing when to push and when to let go is really a big part of the producer’s job. The other thing is creating a situation where the artist feels safe. And I learned this very early on. I met with George Martin, when I was just getting started as a producer. It was this extraordinary lesson, just from being with him for an hour at AIR Studios in London. I felt that the two of us were in this bubble, and that nothing could possibly go wrong, as long as he and I were in the room together. I felt this tremendous sense of safety. And I’ve carried that with me all these years—this was 1981 when we met. But I thought, if I can do that in the studio, in just some small part—allow an artist to feel safe, that this is a safe space, where they can experiment—then something really great can happen.
For Daniel Levitin, all of human experience is wrapped up in music. Our emotions, our culture, even our evolution can be found in our songs.