The Canons of Dr. Daniel Levitin

LevitinHeadShotCognitive-neuroscientist, author, rock star, music producer.  It’s the kind of CV that an ambitiously dreaming 8-year old might conjure and it is also the career of Dr. Daniel Levitin.  Someday, Dr. Levitin will undoubtedly put together the collected tales of his life. His early experiences in engineering and musical arrangement, those years performing with bands, his beat working as a journalist, that detour into stand-up comedy, more than a decade producing/arranging music with some of that industry’s most notable talents, followed by a return to science and engineering and then back again. It’ll be a fun read.

For now, we had an opportunity to speak while Dr. Levitin was in LA. I had tried to catch up with him in Montreal where he maintains a research program and emeritus appointment as the James McGill endowed chair in Psychology and Music, and faculty member at McGill University with multiple departmental affiliations. I had also considered that I might catch up with him in Berkeley where he is a Distinguished faculty fellow at the Haas Business School (UC Berkeley). In the end, we were able to meet up in Hollywood. Big lettered sign in the distance, and all.  In recent years Dr. Levitin was a founding dean of the Minerva Colleges (based in this area); he also has current obligations as an author, was kickstarting his next album of solo recordings (which as of writing this post seems to have been fully funded!), and was also prepping to go on tour with legendary bassist Victor Wooten from his home base in Hollywood. Dr. Levitin has had an impressive career (or several, depending on how such things are tallied) and been an influential voice particularly relating to the psychology and neuroscience of music. From our conversation and the excerpts I’ve posted to this brief summary there are several canons in his life that manifest into his research on the perception of music, categorization of tones and beats, and the neural substructures supporting them.

Dr. Levitin introduces himself in this first excerpt:

Like a few of the influential psychologists I’ve met along this journey, Dr. Levitin has conducted several very candid interviews in the past. He has written some anecdotes about his life in his books, and, consequently, there is much information already public about him. Both of his parents have had impressive careers as an author and artist (mom: Sonia Levitin) and in business and academia (dad: Lloyd Levitin). Daniel was born in 1957 and grew up in the Bay Area region of northern California. As he described it, there were a few important threads in his life starting in his childhood. Those are science, music, and diversification. In many ways, he attributes his earliest scientific mentorship to his grandfather.

He recalled some of his childhood and the relationship with his grandfather in this next excerpt:

His grandfather, a scientifically minded physician, built his own home in Fairfax, CA. He plumbed and wired the place very much in the do-it-yourself spirit. And he doted on Daniel. He and Daniel would conduct experiments in engineering and chemistry, physics and biology, drawing heavily on the scientific experiment boxes that they would receive each month from AAAS (Science society). Daniel clearly had an early interest in how things were put together (deconstructing his playpen and all). Fostered unders the tutelage of his grandfather, even in childhood Daniel took to further experimenting with objects and ideas. He adjusted the tensions of his clarinet, repaired his family’s tube radio taking advantage of the tube-testing mechanisms at the local store. When one anticipates that Dr. Levitin would eventually become heavily involved in neuroscience, this fascination with mechanism and understanding seems rather critical. One has to be motivated to observe the small intricacies of the brain and body, to seek mechanistic connections between a neural circuit here and a behavior there. As a child, Daniel was curious about how things were put together, motivated in seeing their workings, and nurtured into that exploration by his grandfather.

Another important influence enabled his early involvement with music. Dr. Levitin credits his first school music teacher, Mr. Talmadge Edie, for lessons on instruments, an introduction to music theory, to arrangement, and even for an opportunity to conduct! Not only did he encourage Daniel to get involved with music for band but, as he developed in middle school (tween-age years), Mr. Edie literally put a baton in Daniel’s hand. He gave him a venue for exploration and development in music.

Dr. Levitin describes his start in music in the following excerpt:

As described in this excerpt, Mr. Edie taught Daniel to play the clarinet that Daniel inherited from his father. From there Mr. Edie helped him transition on to the saxophone which became a staple in Daniel’s young adult performances. He taught Daniel music theory, arrangement and asked the middle-school aged Daniel to try conducting, thereby making the abstract musical scores he was studying more practical. Daniel progressed with this to the point of taking lead of his Middle School pep band, arranging and conducting the music for performances at the public venues afforded to them (sporting events, an election).  All this set against a social background with Daniel’s family that were, perhaps, not so enamored with this growing passion as a life’s goal. Music was a past time, a hobby, and should not have grander claims than that to the grandfather who had carefully mentored him in science.

While Daniel was and has remained passionate about music (did I mention that he is currently preparing a solo album?), when he considered the options in front of him as a teenager and into college, music was not to be his starting point.

Well, we’ve heard about the influence of Dan’s Grandfather and his music teacher. His curiosity for jumping in new directions and seeking diversification, seems to be rooted in a conversation he had with his father.

There is a model to life offered by Da Vinci, and related to Daniel by his father. The idea behind this model greatly appealed to Daniel. The idea is this: you can do more than one thing! And moreover, the things you have done in the past do not prohibit your capacity to involve yourself in new and different opportunities — this approach to his life and future has clearly stayed with him. As Daniel started to consider his future and sought to go to college he had several interests and focused in one major problem: electrical engineering. (I know, you were expecting Psychology or Music, right?)

He describes his journey to MIT as a 17-year old freshman:

Let’s not forget that building things was an accepted practice in the Levitin family history. His grandfather built a house in Fairfax. Daniel, as a teenager, built a parametric equalizer from spare parts available fromArmy Surplus, free samples that he wrote away to request, and an engineering textbook that provided the equations. After struggling with that build, Daniel applied to MIT on the premise that the good faculty of that institution might be able to help him get the damn thing to finally work!  Thinging back, Dr. Levitin recalled his experience at MIT with mixed emotions. He experienced some great classes and had his introduction to Psychology. But he wasn’t playing music, only took one course in music, and found his adjustment to the culture and experience of the east coast difficult.

It was too unsatisfying to continue and, as Dr. Levitin recalled, at this point his life became a bit chaotic as he tried to seek a more fulfilling path for himself.

Several key figures who influenced Dr. Levitin and his career are introduced in this excerpt. At MIT he took the best course of his life that happened to be in Cognitive Psychology. The course was taught by a truly stellar set of co-instructors: Drs. Susan Carey, Merrill Garret, and Molly Potter. Not only did this course provide Dr. Levitin a strong background in experimental thinking, methodological practices, and philosophy, but it also introduced him to the rapidly developing ideas and theories of cognition, neuroscience, and linguistics. These ideas would serve him well in his future as a cognitive-neuroscientist. Daniel returned to California, began working in journalism and re-applied to Stanford, this time successfully. Two more critical figures emerge: Dr. Roger Shepard who was cited in that MIT cognitive course, and who taught Perception (Daniel’s third psych course). Dr. Shepard would eventually help mentor Daniel into  completing his degree in Psychology.  Dr. Karl Pribram who taught a neuro heavy second-year seminar at his home with those students who had the fortitude to opt for his seemingly grueling, expensive course.

The next part of Dr. Levitin’s life took him deep into the music industry. He took the advise of his Berklee College professor and spent a year woodshedding, and finding his sound. To make ends meet, Daniel lived cheaply in a room he subletted from high school friends — now students at UC Santa Barbara, and worked at the UCSB Psych department’s experimental wood-electircal shop (repairing equipment, building circuit boards, button boxes, etc). The mechanics of experimentation and Psychology were now a background activity for Daniel as he set to building his sound and finding his approach to music. Over the next dozen years Daniel went fully into the music business: playing, producing, and arranging. He was good and rose to working with top-talent. The million dollar question most in Psychology ask about this: how does someone go from a life in the music business to a life as influential neuroscientist?

First, Daniel had to go back to school:

This is a longer excerpt, but it sets up a lot of important ideas. In his first stint at Stanford, Daniel had been employed by Dr. Pribram and worked in his lab. He knew Pribram and kept contact with him. Hence, even over the 13 years in the music business, Daniel remained intellectually oriented to neuroscience and Psychology. Moreover, a harsh reality had set in for Daniel in the early 1990s. He and many others foresaw that the music industry was set to undergo dramatic, existential changes that would directly affect his livelihood. Already Daniel and his peers, including Bob Misbach fresh off producing the hit song “Power of Love” for Huey Lewis and the News, struggled to make ends meet. Dr. Levitin recalls that his best option would be to go back to school, complete a degree at Stanford and diversify to music + something new. Daniel returned to Stanford.  He had lab experience with Dr. Pribram, knowledge of lab workings from his time working the shop for UCSB, and once again learned under the mentorship of Dr. Roger Shepard. This time he went back to school and found the right environment. Daniel launched himself forward with more research, more connections, and with more than a decade of hard musical engineering, arranging, and theory experience feeding  his ideas of  the current science.

Daniel completed his undergrad degree in two years at Stanford, less one Porsche, but having advanced his understanding of psychoacoustics, neuroscience, computational approaches to Psychology. He also had collected some exciting new data on the capabilities of normal (non-musician) listeners to accurately sing the first note of a popular music song on pitch with no guidance, i.e., a capacity for absolute pitch perception way beyond what most in music and psychology had previously determined.  From Stanford he set off to complete his graduate studies at the University of Oregon and worked with some other influential thinkers: Drs. Doug Hintzman and Mike Posner (among others).

There is, of course, a lot more to the career and life of Dr. Daniel Levitin. This really is just the start but already so many ideas, so many influences are clear to have set in motion his career. I look forward to sharing many more tales with you in the book!

Dr. Levitin has a number of excellent publications.  I strongly suggest visiting his website to read a  few and to learn more of his work!

***Photo credit to David Livingston!


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