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The World's Smartest Musician?

Daniel Levitin(Photo courtesy Peter Prato)

After the first four notes, nearly everyone recognizes Led Zeppelin’s iconic “Stairway to Heaven,” the rock epic that came in at No. 31 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. So, when Led Zeppelin was accused of infringing copyright due to the similarity of the song’s intro to the lesser-known “Taurus” by 1960s rock group Spirit, this sparked widespread controversy. Had one of the best-known songs in history been the result of plagiarism?

Led Zeppelin’s acquittal in the high-profile trial was indeed “a victory for common sense,” according to Daniel Levitin, MS '93, PhD ’96, who advised the Led Zeppelin team in what many insiders considered a suit with no basis in copyright law.

Levitin celebrated the legal victory, and stated that it’s impossible to copyright a chord progression. “If you could, there would only be, like, twenty songs in the world,” he said.

Levitin argued a more progressive approach, showing that both songs borrowed from a classical motif in music that dates back to Bach. But this fact is not common knowledge—Levitin’s background in musicology and psychology informed his unique, comprehensive perspective, lending the case its edge.

As a neuroscientist, musician, record producer, international best-selling author, cognitive psychologist, and stand-up comedian in his spare time, one could assume Levitin holds a sort of superhuman power. He observes, however, “My superhuman power is that I was well trained at the University of Oregon.”

Levitin began his academic journey at MIT in 1975, then transferred to Stanford to study music and psychology. Before his senior year, he left school for a long, successful career in the music industry, working as a record producer, sound engineer, and a session musician, and worked with such artists and groups as Stevie Wonder, The Grateful Dead, Santana, Steely Dan, and Blue Öyster Cult.

Known for having a “golden ear,” Levitin consulted on a multitude of projects, including the first Dolby AC audio compression—the work that led to the development of MP3s—and the development and design of the first commercial satellite and subwoofer loudspeaker systems. In addition, he built speaker cabinets for the Grateful Dead, and modified guitar amplifiers that created unique sounds used by Joe Satriani, Blue Öyster Cult, and Chris Isaak.

Levitin initially worked as the A&R director at 415 and Columbia records, and by 1989 was named president of 415. It was during this time that he passed on signing MC Hammer.

Yes, he passed on signing diamond-selling artist responsible for the massive hit “U Can’t Touch This.”

Turning down MC Hammer was the result of calculated reasoning: the same music had been used in multiple songs, most notably Rick James’ “Super Freak.” Although he did not have a problem with it from a conceptual viewpoint, as in the “Stairway to Heaven” case, he thought it would be an issue to the public. To his surprise “U Can’t Touch This” was a huge success, and MC Hammer went on to sell more than 50 million albums worldwide.

After leaving 415 and Columbia, Levitin formed an independent production company while also consulting for Warner Records, adding some serious accomplishments to his portfolio. He worked on the marketing campaign for Eric Clapton’s Unplugged, lent his sound consultant expertise to the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting (for which composer Danny Elfman received an Academy Award nomination), and worked as a compilation consultant for albums by Stevie Wonder and the Carpenters.

After migrating between different arenas in the music industry, Levitin didn’t feel that he was a good enough musician or producer for his career to have sustained success.

“I had been in the industry for a while,” he said. “I started to notice the amount of success in artists and people behind the scenes didn’t have much to do with expertise or ability; it was frustrating. The music that most people had never heard was some of the best music I had ever heard. It was arbitrary.

“The record industry started to fall apart, so it was a good time to do something else.”

Daniel Levitin in his lab
(Photo by Owen Egan/McGill University)

Interested in neuroscience, Levitin was encouraged by UO professor emeritus Lew Goldberg, his mentor and now colleague, to return to school, where he began to fuse his interests and draw connections between them. He completed his bachelor of arts in cognitive psychology and cognitive science at Stanford, then headed north to attend the UO to earn his PhD in psychology.

“The UO psychology department had a distinguished history of important people and important mentors of mine, such as Doug Hintzman, Mike Posner, Anne Fernald, Richard Ivry, Helen Neville, Steve Keele, Lew Goldberg, and Mick Rothbart,” Levitin said. “I had read their work and was captivated by the opportunity to learn from them. I also was attracted to the strength of the music department, particularly Frank Heuser, who is now a colleague of mine.”

During his time at Oregon, Daniel was a regular at Euphoria Chocolate Company, enjoyed the Country Fair, and loved biking. When he wasn’t studying he played in rock bands with friends he met at the UO, and once opened for Bad Religion.

“I played band in school and orchestra all the time,” said Levitin. “In college I started playing in rock bands.

“I loved seeing concerts in Eugene. I once saw Béla Fleck in concert in Eugene. It’s funny now, having performed with his band. Things come full circle.”

Levitin returned to Stanford University Medical School for post-doctoral training in neuroimaging, and also trained in cognitive psychology at UC Berkeley. After completing his post-doctoral training he accepted a faculty position at McGill University, cross-appointed in psychology, music, computer science, and education. Now he is dean at Minerva Schools in San Francisco, a working neuroscientist, and is still playing music.

But seventeen platinum and gold records, and experience working with some of the biggest names in music (including playing the saxophone with Sting) has not satisfied the everlasting curiosity of Levitin, who also runs the Levitin Lab at McGill University in Montreal.

Yes, the McGill laboratory for music perception, cognition, and expertise, is named after a Duck.

Members of the Levitin Lab study why music has such a powerful effect on us, researching the neurochemistry of music and the chemical processes in the brain during musical activity. Currently, Levitin is spearheading research projects looking at pain management through music, and potential health outcomes.

Levitin has written for some of the most noteworthy industry magazines, including Billboard, Grammy, EQ, Mix, Music Connection, and Electronic Musician. He is also one of the best-selling scientists of the last ten years, and his three books are all bestsellers: This Is Your Brain on Music was a number-one bestseller with more than a year spent on the New York Times bestseller list; The World in Six Songs made it on the bestseller list after just one week; his most recent book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, was published in 2014 and was a number-one bestseller that led to an invitation to deliver a TED Talk. His fourth book, A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age, will be published in September.

Music and neuroscience are not necessarily fields one would think to put together, but that’s why Levitin is so progressive—he’s tackled areas otherwise untouched. Now, he is focusing on different aspirations and causes, including championing scientists’ causes to the public and working on creative protection and royalties for musicians and artists.

“Artists should be paid for what they do and music should be a profession,” he said. “I don’t want to live in a world where they are making sandwiches and bussing tables to make music after. It should be a profession, and artists should be getting paid for it.”

When not running the Levitin Lab and writing books, Daniel Levitin continues to work on his songwriting, frequently taking advice from top songwriters in exchange for minilessons on music and the brain. Despite his accomplishments he does not consider himself a master, but aspires to write a song that another artist will want to record.

“I realize more clearly than ever, the role that practice plays in expertise,” said Levitin. “In talking to Stevie Wonder, Sting, and Joni Mitchell, I’ve come to realize that it takes a lot more practice and effort than I ever imagined. They are all workaholics—I work all the time and my work ethic is nothing compared to theirs. They are beyond what people would imagine in terms of immersive dedication and focus.”

It seems difficult to reconcile the simplicity behind loving a song and the complexity that comes with understanding the power behind it, but Daniel Levitin continues researching, discovering, and exploring in order to do just that. He maintains a strong passion for music and music discovery through his scientific expertise—breaking it down but never breaking the life it has.

“The deeper you go into music, you realize there is just so much to enjoy, like layers of an onion that keep coming off,” he said. “You never lose a sense of wonder in music. It’s complicated, and I don’t think anyone will ever fully figure it out.”

If you want any recommendations from the man with the golden ear, he is currently listening to Roseanne Cash’s The River and the Thread, Rodney Crowell’s Tarpaper Sky, and “Pluto” by Claire and the Reasons.

- by Mina Naderpoor, BS '16