December 30, 2006

Wired for Sound [11:17 am]

A look at cognition and music from tomorrow’s NYTimes: Music of the Hemispheres - pdf

“Listen to this,” Daniel Levitin said. “What is it?” He hit a button on his computer keyboard and out came a half-second clip of music. It was just two notes blasted on a raspy electric guitar, but I could immediately identify it: the opening lick to the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.”

Then he played another, even shorter snippet: a single chord struck once on piano. Again I could instantly figure out what it was: the first note in Elton John’s live version of “Benny and the Jets.”

Dr. Levitin beamed. “You hear only one note, and you already know who it is,” he said. “So what I want to know is: How we do this? Why are we so good at recognizing music?”

[...] Dr. Levitin is singular among music scientists for actually having come out of the music industry. Before getting his Ph.D. he spent 15 years as a record producer, working with artists ranging from the Blue Öyster Cult to Chris Isaak. While still in graduate school he helped Stevie Wonder assemble a best-of collection; in 1992 Dr. Levitin’s sensitive ears detected that MCA Records had accidentally used third-generation backup tapes to produce seven Steely Dan CDs, and he embarrassed the label by disclosing it in Billboard magazine. He has earned nine gold and platinum albums, which he tucks in corners of his lab, office and basement at home. “They look a little scary when you put them all in one place, so I spread them around,” he said.

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