A Mind for Music (Page 2)

A Mind for Music (Page 2) McGill University

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ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
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A Mind for Music (Page 2)

Bizarro author Dan Piraro with Levitin.
Levitin with former Reprise Records president and music biz VIP, Howie Klein.

Left: Bizarro author Dan Piraro with Levitin. Right: Levitin with former Reprise Records president and music biz VIP, Howie Klein.
Photos courtesy Dan Levitin

Music is still a huge part of Levitin's life. Sax in hand, he's sat in with McGill jazz group the Blue Monkey Project, and he's participated in a jazz concert that saw musicians from McGill and Stanford perform together in surround sound and full-screen video over the Internet in real time using McGill's ultra-videoconferencing system. He's also an occasional consultant on the topic of e-music business strategy, writes liner notes for the likes of Stevie Wonder, advised on the soundtrack to the film Pulp Fiction and is currently producing an album by blues guitarist - and McGill MEd student - Dale Boyle.

Of all the hats he's worn, Levitin says his stand-up comedy experience has the greatest impact on his teaching. A charismatic speaker who peppers his lectures with jokes and anecdotes, he says he's not there to entertain students, but does push himself to make the material interesting.

"When you do stand-up," he explains, "you're accustomed to having this big room that doesn't respond, which is sort of like what teaching is. So you get over it, you realize you're not going to get a response all of the time. But I try to get some momentum going so they're interested, and when I see that a certain lecture isn't commanding the students' full attention, I know it needs some work."

In addition to his teaching duties, Levitin is building up his lab at McGill. The current crew count is ten undergrads, "four-and-a-half" doctoral students, one post-doc fellow and a full-time research technician. His research examines musical cognition "using a multipronged approach" of psychophysics (mostly concerned with determining thresholds of detection), standard experimental psychology (e.g., how accurately people remember certain things), genetics, and neuroanatomics (brain scans and neurochemical analyses).

Given Levitin's varied background, it's no surprise he's a founding member of McGill's Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology (CIRMMT - pronounced kermit), where researchers from varied fields are brought together to study sound and music from varied perspectives: neuroscience, psychology, sound recording, computer science and more. CIRMMT members look at everything from how sound is created, captured and perceived to sound recording and transmission processes and creating virtual reality.

"Dan Levitin brings to McGill a network of contacts from the music and recording industry as well as from the research community in cognitive psychology that has been very helpful in expanding our fundraising base," says Dean of the Faculty of Music Don McLean. "He has a cool and personable style, and coupled with his intelligent willingness to explore new territory it makes him a natural spokesperson for the unique musical art-science mission of CIRMMT that is so special to the Faculty."

Indeed, Levitin could be the poster boy for the arts-science cross-pollination that defines CIRMMT. early in his research career, he investigated how accurately non-professional singers remember the pitch and tempo of pop songs. The experiments revolutionized the common - and rather low - scientific opinion of human perceptions and information retention, revealing that most people do in fact have excellent memories for pitch and tempo. "The Levitin Effect," as it came to be known, is a feather in the researcher's cap to be sure, but he still cringes at the name.

Pitch memory, however, is not to be confused with the rare bird known as absolute or perfect pitch, the ability to identify notes by name or reproduce them without a reference tone. Levitin is currently investigating the mechanisms behind this one-in-10,000 phenomenon.

He's also intrigued by the impact (or, possibly, non-impact) of innate "genius" on musicality. In a series of interviews, he's posed the nature-or-nurture question to Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton and others. The superstars largely credit their success to elbow grease and luck, but Levitin isn't so sure. Another aspect of the research has him analyzing the performances of several pianists using a special keyboard which measures the intensity with which they strike a key - and the exact millisecond they strike and release it.

"The crucial fact," he explains, "is that all of the expressive variation in a piano performance - if you ignore the pedaling - comes from only three decisions the player makes: when to push the key, how hard to push it, and when to let go of it. By analyzing the performance of several pianists, we can study what it is about their playing that makes it more expressive."

Levitin's study of Williams Syndrome also involves people with high-functioning musicality - but these talents come at an apparent cost. Williams Syndrome is a rare genetic disorder that creates a unique cognitive profile: the afflicted are often extremely musical, able to instantly learn and retain prodigious amounts of music, yet have such profoundly underdeveloped intellects that they can't count to ten.

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