Ever hear a song play over and over again in your mind, and be unable to do anything about it? It happens to all of us. Monica Hesse of the Washington Post interviews perhaps the best person to explain why it happens: record producer turned neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, the Bell Chair in the Psychology of Electronic Communication of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition, and Expertise in the Department of Psychology at McGill University. Levitin is the author of the new book, “This is Your Brain on Music,” and he shares his thoughts on why music can be “stuck” in our heads. We excerpt a portion of the interview below.
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Q: In your book you say music might be an evolutionary asset.
Levitin: “Darwin thought the function of music was to attract members of the opposite sex. … A man who can dance for hours on end, always varying the steps – that shows great physical stamina and mental flexibility. Women could be subliminally thinking, ‘This guy is clever. This guy could bring home a bison.’ ”
Q: And now, in our bison-protected era?
Levitin: “Look at Mick Jagger. There’s an ancient genetic echo that musicians are attractive. … In one study women were asked to rate various fictional potential mates. The guys were either creative or not creative, rich or not rich. When women were at their most fertile, they wanted to hook up with the creative guy. Other times, they wanted the rich guy. So if you’re passing on genes, you want the creative guy.”
Q: Now I have “Stars and Stripes Forever” stuck in my head. Explain that to me.
Levitin: “Scientists call songs that get stuck in your head “earworms,” after the German Ohrwurm. We don’t know a lot about how or why they happen – it’s hard to get funding to study this type of thing – but we know a little. Like, it tends not to be a whole song that gets stuck in your head, just 15-20 seconds of one, and it tends to be a simple song that even non-singers can hum without effort.”
Q: Is there a cure?
Levitin: “Some people get earworms so bad that it interferes with their ability to sleep or work. For those people, antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs can help. They relax the circuits. Then again, some people become musicians because they have earworms. Neil Young told me that he started writing songs because he couldn’t get rid of the tunes in his head.”
Q: Doesn’t learning everything about how our brains interact with music ruin the magic of the listening experience?
Levitin: “Like that famous Oz scene where the Wizard is revealed as a nebbish little man behind the curtain? For me it’s been the opposite. Every time I get a modicum of insight into mystery I’m overwhelmed by the intricacy and the beauty.”
Q: Where will you go next with your research?
Levitin: “My lab recently completed a study in which we found an area of the brain that responds to the silence in between symphony movements. It’s really a study about memory, and event segmentation and how we define beginnings and endings.”
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For the rest of the interview, click here. For an examination of the connection between situationism and music, see Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s “Busker or Virtuoso? Depends on the Situation.” In their post, Hanson and McCann explore how the situation in which persons listen to acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell–either while he is disguised as a subway peddler or while performing normally at a symphony–enormously influences how they regard his music. For another post exploring how our taste in music is situationally contingent, see “The Situation of Music.”