"Listen to this," Daniel Levitin said. "What is it?" He hit a button on his computer keyboard and out came a half-second clip of music. It was just two notes blasted on a raspy electric guitar, but I could immediately identify it: the opening lick to the Rolling Stones' Brown Sugar.
Then he played another, even shorter snippet: a single chord struck once on piano. Again I could instantly figure out what it was: the first note in Elton John's Benny and the Jets.
Levitin beamed. "You hear only one note, and you already know who it is," he said. "So what I want to know is: How we do this? Why are we so good at recognizing music?"
This is not merely some whoa-dude epiphany that a music fan might have while listening to a radio contest. Levitin has devoted his career to exploring this question. He is a cognitive psychologist who runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal, perhaps the world's leading lab in probing why music has such an intense effect on us.
"By the age of 5 we are all musical experts, so this stuff is clearly wired really deeply into us," said Levitin, an eerily youthful-looking 49, surrounded by the pianos, guitars and enormous 16-track mixers that make his lab look more like a recording studio.
This summer he published This Is Your Brain on Music, a layperson's guide to the emerging neuroscience of music. Levitin is an unusually deft interpreter, full of striking scientific trivia. For example we learn that babies begin life with synesthesia, the trippy confusion that makes people experience sounds as smells or tastes as colors. Or that the cerebellum, a part of the brain that helps govern movement, is also wired to the ears and produces some of our emotional responses to music. His experiments have even suggested that watching a musician perform affects brain chemistry differently from listening to a recording.
Levitin is singular among music scientists for actually having come out of the music industry. Before getting his PhD he spent 15 years as a record producer, working with artists ranging from the Blue Oyster Cult to Chris Isaak. While still in graduate school he helped Stevie Wonder assemble a best-of collection; in 1992 Levitin's sensitive ears detected that MCA Records had accidentally used third-generation backup tapes to produce seven Steely Dan CDs, and he embarrassed the label by disclosing it in Billboard magazine. He has earned nine gold and platinum albums, which he tucks in corners of his lab, office and basement at home. "They look a little scary when you put them all in one place, so I spread them around," he said.
Martin Grant, the dean of science at McGill, compares Levitin's split professional personality to that of Brian Greene, the pioneering string-theory scientist who also writes mass-market books. "Some people are good popularizers, and some are good scientists, but not usually both at once," Grant said. "Dan's actually cutting edge in his field."
Scientifically, Levitin's colleagues credit him for focusing attention on how music affects our emotions, turf that wasn't often covered by previous generations of psychoacousticians, who studied narrower questions about how the brain perceives musical sounds. "The questions he asks are very very musical, very concerned with the fact that music is an art that we interact with, not just a bunch of noises," said Rita Aiello, an adjunct professor in the department of psychology at New York University.