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Sounds and the mind: Josh McDermott on the science of music perception

Josh McDermott is a University of Minnesota scientist who studies sound, music, and the brain. Last month McDermott treated a sold-out Bryant-Lake Bowl crowd to a fascinating presentation on "The Science of Music" as part of the BLB and Bell Museum's Café Scientifique series. MinnPost caught up with McDermott to e-chat about the effects of music on the mind, and vice versa.

MinnPost: What is your background and how did you first get interested in studying sound, silence and music?
Josh McDermott:
From a young age I wanted to be a scientist. I went to college thinking I would do physics and math, but was quickly seduced by the new and exciting sciences of the mind and brain. I was trained as a cognitive scientist, and spent my early years studying how people see. Music was always my main interest outside of science. In grad school I spent a lot of time DJing in clubs, parties and on the radio, and to this day I am a pretty obsessive record collector.

There were always lots of questions about music that fascinated me: Why does it make us feel so good, why do we like some things and not others, how can an abstract sound stimulus convey emotion, why do some grooves almost force us to move to the beat? Eventually I decided I ought to try to get some answers, and so I moved into the study of hearing and music perception, which is what I do now. About half of what I do is basic research on hearing, and the other half is specifically geared towards music.

MP: Where did you grow up? What clubs/radio did you DJ in?
I grew up in Arlington, Virginia, right outside Washington, D.C. I spent a lot of time listening to the D.C. radio stations, and internalized the sounds of quiet storm radio at a young age. I did most of my DJing in Boston, where I went to school. I played various clubs/bars/lounges there, and was on the radio every Sunday night on WMBR, 88.1 FM, a great radio station that was sort of like The Current is here in its format and freedom. I don't play too often these days as I am pretty focused on science, but you can catch me at the King and I Thai once a month, and I'm open to doing other things if I have time.

MP: In the last few years, several books have come out in your arena. Oliver Sacks' "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain," Daniel Levitin's "This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession," even Norman Doidge's wonderful and important "The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science." These are best-sellers. Have you kept abreast of these titles, and why do you think, at this time in history, there's a surge of interest in cognitive study and, specifically, in how listening to music affects us? 
I know about those books and have read parts of some of them. Interest in the science of music is certainly on the rise. There are, of course, methods that are relatively recent additions to our toolboxes, such as techniques to measure brain activity in humans, and these have made important contributions. But a lot of the research is relatively low-tech, and could have been done 50 years ago if people had wanted to do it. And there has always been some work on music perception and cognition, but there is more of it now than in the past. I think it partly reflects a liberalization of science that has taken place over time.

Josh McDermott
Josh McDermott

For instance, there are now lots of people trying to study the basis of morality, or of religion, or of love, by doing experiments. I think this might not have been a respectable thing to do 40 years ago. I wasn't around back then, but that is my impression. There is also a trend, possibly related, to try to understand the evolutionary origins of aspects of human behavior. This has stimulated thinking on the how and why of music, language, mathematics, etc.

MP: At the BLB talk you talked about how dogs don't listen to music, or don't hear it the same way we do. I've mentioned this to several dog lovers and they say it's not true. I'm probably misrepresenting what you said; expand on that.
I think more research is needed before we can draw any firm conclusions.

I did one experiment in which dogs responded pretty differently to musical stimuli than did humans, in that they did not appear to prefer consonant to dissonant musical intervals. But it was just one experiment, using a particular method, and there is certainly the need for more work before we can make any definitive claims.

I have heard lots of anecdotes from dog owners as well. There may be something to them, but until you make measurements in a controlled situation (i.e. do an experiment), it is hard to conclude anything. There is a long history of claims about animal abilities that have been debunked when careful experiments are performed. Animals can be incredibly sensitive to behavioral cues from humans, so it is not a stretch to suppose that dogs perceive a change in their owners' behavior when they listen to music, and respond accordingly.

I don't mean to say that this is absolutely what is going on, only that we have to be careful not to base too much on anecdotes. This area unfortunately lends itself to loose talk, and one of the things I have done is to try to rigorously test things with controlled experiments. It is not easy, and my work is just the start, but I think eventually we'll learn a lot.
MP: The BLB crowd was made up of music lovers and academics of all ages, all equally intrigued by your research. Listening to music is a very intimate experience, yet rarely do we get a chance to discuss the act of listening. What have you discovered about listening — to music or anything — that you think is important, especially in these times when the din of the world discourages listening and encourages hollering? 
As a hearing/music scientist, listening is an incredibly useful activity. I get ideas for experiments all the time when listening to music, or simply from listening to my acoustic environment. That is one of the great things about studying perception — insights can arrive during the course of daily activities. For me the key is just to pay attention, and to think about why things sound the way they do. Music producers typically (though not always) spend vast amounts of time fiddling with the sound of a recording. It is always interesting to observe and try to understand the choices that were made. Often they reveal clues to how our auditory system works.

MP: Give me a couple examples of productions that reveal those clues.

One technique I have seen engineers use is to alter the frequency spectrum of instruments so as to make it easier to hear them when combined with other instruments. They do this by creating notches and bumps in the spectrum via electronic filters. Usually they want to make a notch on one instrument where there is a peak in another, so that the various instruments overlap less than they normally would in frequency. It makes you realize that music is a very special stimulus — specifically engineered to help the auditory system make out lots of things at once.

Sometimes producers will do the reverse — combining two instruments with the intention of having them fuse and sound like a single, new sound. You can read about Brian Wilson doing this a lot on the Pet Sounds album by the Beach Boys, for instance, but it's a pretty common trick. Sound sources that start and stop at nearly the same times tend to be heard as a single sound, and recording engineers implicitly know this.

Extensive reverb can also be used to make it harder to hear individual instruments. The waveforms get distorted, but in a way that is fairly natural and not unpleasant to the listener. You hear something that is more amorphous than what you would hear otherwise. Phil Spector is known for this, and you can hear similar effects in a lot of the shoegazer bands of the early '90s.

MP: How much does the outside environment inform what our listening choices are? I spent much of last weekend in the basement listening to Sun Ra, Coltrane, Esquivel. I wasn't aware of it at the time, but it was a way to get me off the planet as we know it, a true make-the-world-go-away reaction.

I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "outside environment." Certainly what we want to listen to varies as a function of our mood — music can enhance something that you feel, or alter your mood.

MP: What I meant by "outside environment" is the world at large, the stimulus of day-to-day living. The noise of life. Anyway, scientifically speaking, what exactly happens when a certain note, song, or composition elicits a certain emotion? We often talk in our culture about "synapses firing." Clinically, what synapses fire upon hearing music?
Well, lots of synapses fire. Music enters the brain via the ears, and activates the parts of the brain that process sound, in the temporal lobes. It also engages parts of the frontal lobe, which perhaps help to represent some of the complex structures that are formed by note combinations. It seems that music also activates language circuits, at least to some extent. And then the emotions that you experience when you hear music cause still other parts of the brain to get involved. Music that people claim to deeply enjoy often activates the same parts of the brain that get activated by good food, or cocaine, or sex.

MP: And chocolate. Is that the endorphins, or pheromones, at work?
Pheromones are chemicals that are emitted by one organism and evoke a change in the state of another organism. So that is something pretty different. Endorphins are chemicals released in the body that are thought to make people feel good, e.g. after exercise or sex. I don't know of evidence that endorphins specifically mediate the reward we experience from music. But there are lots of chemicals released in the brain that affect the reward system, dopamine being one of the most common, and one or more of them is likely to be involved.

What has been observed is that an array of brain areas implicated in the experience of reward activate when people listen to music they like. The exact chemical basis of this has not been measured, but there isn't much reason to think that the response is qualitatively different from that to chocolate or cocaine. What is less clear is WHY music produces this response. We think we understand in rough terms why the other things are rewarding.

In some cases it seems likely that there are ecologically valid evolved responses (e.g. for sex or food), in other cases we think we understand how the brain is "tricked" into finding things rewarding that are of no value to the organism (e.g. cocaine). Music is more mysterious in this regard; it's unclear whether our response to it is a feature that evolved to serve a function, or whether it is another example of the brain getting "tricked" by a stimulus that does not have intrinsic value to the organism.

MP: What music are you digging these days?
I like all sorts of music, but I spend most of my listening time on soul. Everything from the '60s onwards. I really love "rare groove" music from the '70s, combining jazz and soul and funk (Roy Ayers, Norman Connors, Donald Byrd, Gary Bartz, Minnie Riperton, Marvin Gaye), which I got hooked on while living in London after college, as well as soulful disco (Philly International, Salsoul, Patrick Adams etc.). Also love early '80s soul and boogie, like Patrice Rushen, Alicia Myers, Leroy Burgess. Apart from that, you can also find '60s pop, indie guitar bands, and assorted Brazilian on my turntables.

MP: Your BLB talk focused on silence, as well as music. I've always liked the Aldous Huxley quote about "After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." They're two different methods of meditation, but both guide the individual to realize a deeper self, a rich inner life, self-containment, etc. Has your work, by necessity, encompassed any existentialism or other philosophical studies?
I can't say that I spend much time thinking about that sort of philosophy. I find philosophy of science and of mind fascinating, and those issues come up regularly in the course of what I do. But I don't know much outside those areas.

MP: OK, what about silence and it's relation to music? Talk about that for a bit.
Gosh, I'm not sure I have anything intelligent to say here. Obviously there is the [John] Cage piece, which I always thought was a bit of a gimmick, though it does expose the difficulty of defining what music is. I've just never found that terribly interesting. The scientifically interesting thing about music for me is that most people like it. So I'm mostly interested in music that lots of people can appreciate and enjoy, as this is the really mystifying and striking phenomenon. That's not to say that the more difficult experimental sorts of music are not worthwhile. They may well be interesting from an artistic standpoint, just not from a scientific standpoint, at least not from the standpoint of cognitive science.

MP: What are a couple things you've learned about music as a scientist that you think it's important for the lay listener to know?
One thing that I think about a lot is the diversity of music. Western pop music is taking over the world, and its ubiquity nowadays makes it easy to forget, or to even be aware, of how different some other musical traditions are. I find the diversity fascinating. Not only does the sound of music vary a lot, but the uses to which it is put also varies.

There are probably lots of clues there to music's origins; it is just unfortunate that all these other musical traditions are being swept away with the onslaught of Western culture. A related observation is that one's musical experience can profoundly shape the way that music sounds.

So if you encounter a new genre, it is worth it to spend some time listening to it before passing judgment. Also, as a hearing scientist I am acutely aware of the dangers of noise exposure. Everyone should keep their iPods to a reasonable level, as there is a real risk of hearing loss, which is no joke. I also try to bring earplugs when I go to shows, which are often prohibitively loud. Music usually doesn't sound great at such high levels, and is not good for the ears.

MP: What's next for you? Where can people go to hear you speak, and is the proverbial book in the works?
I'm afraid I'm on my way out of the Twin Cities, headed to New York at the end of the year. I will continue to study music and hearing. I would like to do a book on the science of music at some point, but it will probably be a while before that happens; it's not in my immediate plans.

My web page will always have my latest work, and that is easily found via search engines. I am giving a talk in the U of M music department on Nov. 10, which I believe is open to the public, though it will be geared a bit more toward an academic audience than the BLB talk was.

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