Home Emotional music When Joni Mitchell speaks, composer neuroscientist Daniel Levitin listens

When Joni Mitchell speaks, composer neuroscientist Daniel Levitin listens


Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, neuroscientist at McGill University, released his own album, sex & math.David Livingstone

Melodious neuroscientist and struggling songwriter Daniel Levitin was talking to his friend Joni Mitchell. She had been around a bit and had constructive criticism of him. “Hey, those songs you write are pretty good, but let me show you how to make them better,” he recalled saying. “And let me teach you how to sing them so you don’t sound so much like a teacher.”

What is Levitin, the best-selling author of It’s your brain on the music, do? He listened to Mitchell. When Shakespeare offers to help you write a sonnet, it is better not to protest too much.

“I was so focused on singing in the right pitch and in the right rhythm that I just wouldn’t let myself go,” Levitin said, speaking from California. “I was too afraid of being accused of poor vocal musicality to forget that the song is a journey and a story. It has to be emotional. »

Thomas Edison created the phonograph, but it never had a best-selling record. Levitin, a lifelong musician with a doctorate. in cognitive psychology with a minor in music technology, knows neuroscience, but for a very long time he did not create songs in a meaningful way.

He just went out sex and math, a poetic album of melodic adult rock. It is a sequel to Revolve around, an original music solo debut released in 2020 when he was 63 years old. One would think that the man who wrote a book (perhaps the book) on how the human brain receives music would have an inside track on how to crack the Billboard Hot 100 code. Not so.

“In making this record,” says Levitin, “I didn’t reverse an emotional reaction and think, ‘What combination of notes and rhythms will make a listener feel a certain way?’ This does not happen. I don’t know anyone who can do that. »

Levitin is an American-born Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal. He has been writing songs since he was a child (to help him better understand the “emotional, non-cerebral side of life”) and recorded records with various rock and new wave bands in the 1970s and 1980. None of this music had much success beyond local radio.

Levitin knows music theory and how the circuitry of the cerebellum affects whether a track is catchy. He has produced and viewed albums by artists such as Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder. However, it took him time to understand what separated him from the elite of the musical profession: talent, yes, but diligence and a methodical approach. Once again, he learned his lesson from his friend and mentor, the blonde-haired genius behind Blue, Help me and big yellow taxi.

“I would go to Joni’s once a month for dinner, and she would play me songs she was working on,” Levitin says. “I would come back the next month and ask her what else she had written. She said, “Nothing new, but do you remember that song I played you last month? I revised it. ”

Levitin looked at the yellow pad on the piano. Mitchell had only changed two words. It took him a month. Studying professional musicians for years, Levitin noticed that many of the best songwriters had staggering work ethics.

“If Joni can spend 30 days on two words and afford even longer than that to get it right, I realized maybe I should try that,” says Levitin, whose bestselling books include those from 2014. .The Organized Mind and 2008 The world in six songs. “I didn’t think I would ever be as good as Joni Mitchell, but I could be better than I was if I was willing to put in the time.”

Some sex and math the material dates back years. The easy going This is my chorus was written in the 1980s. “I was listening to a lot of Lou Reed, and I wanted to capture that half-talking, half-singing style,” says Levitin. One of the verses alludes to Levitin’s frustrations as a songwriter while paying homage to Neil Young, with the lyrics: “He could sing so seriously, sing so soulfully / But when I get to this D chord, I just don’t know. where to go.”

The album begins with On the way to falla laid-back number with a summer vibe and a chord progression that he says “theoretically shouldn’t work”.

Science, science.

Country and American songwriting pro Rodney Crowell once told Levitin that he didn’t spend enough time editing his lyrics. “And Rodney was right,” Levitin says. Crowell suggested Levitin study poetry to sharpen his lyricism.

However, practice, poetry and the passage of time do not make perfection. Mitchell deliberated on a sentence for weeks. Leonard Cohen sat in a hotel room in his underwear, banging his head on the floor trying to get Alleluia just to the right. Ultimately, Levitin believes, the goal is not perfection, but the pursuit of it.

“What becomes emotionally moving is when an artist in any medium struggles with their limitations and you feel that struggle,” he says. “Even if you’re John Coltrane, the instrument doesn’t do everything you want it to, and it doesn’t say everything you need to say. And I think that resonates with all of us.

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