The first two sets of stereo speakers Daniel Levitin ever owned landed him in big trouble. The first he played so loudly they drew the ire of his father, the second he played so loudly they caught on fire in his college dorm room.
Both incidents indirectly led Levitin to one of the most unusual and prolific careers paths modern science has known – that of a session musician who became a record producer, then a record company executive, then a neuroscientist and sometime stand-up comedian, and finally an internationally acclaimed author of “This Is Your Brain On Music: the Science of a Human Obsession” and “The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature.”
It all began in Palos Verdes in the summer of 1969. That spring, Levitin had scrimped and saved every dime he earned weeding neighbors’ gardens for 75 cents an hour in order to buy a $100 stereo system at the local hi-fi shop. Thus were the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and extremely loud Tchaikovsky symphonies brought into the Levitin family home, where his mother, Sonia, worked as a novelist and his father, Lloyd, worked 40 of his 80-hour workweeks as an executive with Pacific Enterprises and the Southern California Gas Company.
His father, astute businessman that he was, cut him a deal. “He would buy me a pair of headphones if I would promise to use them when he was home,” Levitin later wrote. “Those headphones forever changed the way I listened to music.”
Those headphones drew Levitin headlong into a life in music. A precociously bright 11-year-old, he was partly drawn to music for the reasons kids across the U.S. were listening to rock n’ roll – the songs, the sense of rebellion, and the unfettered exuberance of a new art form that was shaking the foundations of American culture. But Levitin heard something else, as well, particularly when he donned the headphones – a vast sonic landscape, one that impacted him so deeply it seemed to alter his consciousness as he escaped into the music. Already, the analytical part of Levitin wondered: how does music do this?
By the time he was 13 he knew that music, for him, was more than a passing enthusiasm. As a student in the Palos Verdes Unified School District, he became a musician.
“As moved as I was by listening to music, then I had these great experiences playing music in California public schools – back in the day when anybody who wanted to play an instrument, the school district would give you one,” Levitin said in an interview last month. “And they would give you lessons. Our junior high school had not just an orchestra, but a concert band and a jazz band and a pep band. So there were a lot of opportunities to play, and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Levitin passionately took up the saxophone. And as he entered Palos Verdes High School, he found musical mentors.
“I was in the marching band,” Levitin recalled. “I took lessons with Dominic Mumolo, the tenor sax player in the NBC orchestra, and our band director, Warren Balfour at Palos Verdes High School – the first band director we had, and he was a commercial trumpet player. If you listen to the Flintstones theme, that super high note at the end – that is him.”
Levitin possessed a parallel passion: since the age of four, he had loved to record things. His first device was a 3M open reel machine, which he used to clandestinely record conversations between his parents – an activity that almost brought his recording career to an early halt if it weren’t for what he describes as “the loving intervention” of his grandfather. He switched to musical recording, and by junior high was recording on cassette and 8-track – he became not only the conductor and arranger of his junior high jazz band, but also its recording engineer and producer. By high school, he was making demo tapes for singer/songwriter friends and already considering entering career in the recording industry. Instead, at the advice of A&M Records engineer Larry Levine, he held off, and instead went to MIT to study electrical engineering.
And it was at MIT that the aforementioned flaming speaker incident occurred. He was, in point of fact, listening to the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” at ten decibels when the speakers burst into flames. Levitin took this as a sign – he dropped out of school and joined a rock band called The Mortals (and later renamed Judy Garland), eventually, at the age of 22, landed in San Francisco. The band’s demos earned radio airplay, and soon Levitin found himself – like a kid in a candy store – in a full fledged recording studio, Bear West Studio. The engineer, Mark Needham, took a liking to young musician, and when the band broke up (“…due to the guitarist’s frequent suicide attempts and the vocalist’s nasty habit of taking nitrous oxide and cutting himself with razor blades,” Levitin later wrote), Levitin found work producing other bands.
Thus began the recording industry part of Levitin’s career. He worked as an engineer, session musician, performer, producer, and executive. Levitin – who plays guitar and bass as well as sax – performed with a wide array of artists, including Mel Tormé, Nancy Wilson, David Byrne, Roseanne Cash, Sting, and Bobby McFerrin. As a producer, he worked with Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, and Blue Öyster Cult, among others. And from 1985 through 1987, Levitin served as VP and later president of A&R for 415/Colombia Records. In the course of this career, he earned 14 gold and platinum records, working on records and CDs that all together sold more than 30 million copies. And while he was enjoying this success, he had a sideline career as a standup comedian, performing such high profile gigs as the 1984 Democratic Convention with Robin Williams as well as writing for Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall.
And this, for most, would be a full career. But Levitin was really only getting started on his life’s work. He’d never stopped thinking about those early childhood experiences, about the way hearing music on those headphones altered his very consciousness, and the deeper he went into the music industry, the more he thought about music and the human brain.
“I began to wonder why some musicians became household names while others languished in obscurity….why music came so easily to some and not others,” Levitin later wrote. “Where does creativity come from? Why do some songs move us so and others leave us cold? And what about the role of perception in all of this, the uncanny ability of great musicians and engineers to hear nuances that most of us don’t.”
These questions led Levitin back to school. In 1992, he graduated from Stanford with a degree in psychology and cognitive science. A year later, he earned his masters in cognitive psychology from the University of Oregon, where in 1996 he obtained a Ph.D. in the same field.
Unsurprisingly, he quickly became an academic star, publishing more than 100 papers and teaching at Stanford, Berkeley, Dartmouth, and the University of Montreal. Currently, he is Professor and James McGill Chair in Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience Department of Psychology at Montreal’s prestigious McGill University.
Levintin’s broad ranging mind and insatiable musical curiosity kept him from becoming solely an academic. Yet another of his passions had always been writing – going back to his high school days, he’d worked as a reporter for the Palos Verdes View newspaper (where he also served as editor the summers of ’75 and ’76). And so in 2006, he wrote the groundbreaking book, “This is Your Brain on Music,” which also served as the basis for two subsequent documentaries on the topic he made with Bobby McPherrin and Sting.
Levitin said that his scientific approach to music isn’t as singular as one might imagine. Music, after all, is based on math – intervals – and musicians are generally the ultimate autodidacts. Many musicians, Levitin said, study music as a science.
“I think that is not so unusual,” he said. “If you read Bob Dylan’s autobiography, he talks about taking a very systematic and methodical approach to dissecting songs when he was learning to song-write, really a scientific approach to tinkering and experimenting, ‘How do I do what Woody Guthrie did? What move did he make there musically or lyrically that gave it that emotional impact? I’ve come to learn since the publication of the books, there are a lot of musicians who think about music in a scientific way, or resonate to the scientific approach, and want to know more about it.”
Levitin retains fond memories of his Palos Verdes childhood. Though his parents have since left the area, Levitin said that without the musical education he received in PV schools, much of the rest of his astonishing career might not have been possible.
“Palos Verdes High, Class of ’75,” Levitin said. “I never forget the opportunities I had growing up there.”