Dan Levitin – music and human evolution

The musician/neuroscientist Dan Levitin is well known for his book This is Your Brain on Music.

In AP Psych I currently have my students reading a chapter in Dan Levitin’s book – The World in Six Songs. I chose the chapter on love songs, of course, which will probably be most memorable. The topic makes for great discussion in class about the merits of evolutionary psych and covers most of the concepts in the Myers AP text. Here is the Levitin’s TED talk, that summarizes his new book with musical/dance examples:

In a recent study published in Neuroscience (April 2013), researchers collaborated with McGill’s Dan Levitin to explore the effects of classical music on the brain:

The preferential activation of motor-planning centers in response to music, compared with pseudo-music, suggests that our brains respond naturally to musical stimulation by foreshadowing movements that typically accompany music listening: clapping, dancing, marching, singing or head-bobbing. The apparently similar activation patterns among normal individuals make it more likely our movements will be socially coordinated.

I never thought I would discover one of England’s greatest baroque composers – William Boyce – in a neuroscience article. His symphony #1 seems to be a popular choice among high school music teachers. I’m currently typing this with my two week-old boy, Alasdair, wrapped up lying in my arms. Every time I start playing it he stops fidgeting and pays attention. Then it becomes too much for him, and he begins to fall asleep.

Here is another TED talk by Ardon Shorr (a much better presenter), who explains why we perceive classical music as boring. This would be great for the memory unit in Psych – he argues that classical music is a learning experience: too much information and complexity at once overwhelms us, and we turn to the simple pop tunes. Unlocking classical music requires an appreciation of its structure, of the recurring themes and variations. Shorr uses some great examples – barbershop quartet, Schubert waltz,  Bob Marley, etc.

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