The melodious neuroscientist and struggling songwriter Daniel Levitin was speaking to his friend Joni Mitchell. She’d been around a bit and had some constructive criticism for him. “Hey, these songs you’re writing are pretty good, but let me show you how to make them better,” he recalls her saying. “And let me teach you how to sing them so that you don’t sound so much like a professor.”
What did Levitin, the bestselling author of This is Your Brain on Music, do? He listened to Mitchell. When Shakespeare offers to help you write a sonnet, best not to protest too much.
“I was so focused on singing in the right pitch and in the right rhythm, I wasn’t letting loose,” Levitin says, speaking from California. “I was too fearful of being accused of bad vocal musicianship that I’d forget that the song is a journey and a story. It has to be emotive.”
Thomas Edison created the phonograph, but he never had a top-selling record. Levitin, a lifelong musician who has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology with a minor in music technology, knows neuroscience, but for a very long time he wasn’t creating songs in a significant way.
He has just released sex & math, a poetic album of melodic adult rock. It’s a follow-up to Turnaround, a solo debut of original music that was released in 2020 when he was 63 years old. One might 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,” Levitin says, “I didn’t reverse engineer an emotional response and think to myself, ‘What combination of notes and rhythms will make a listener feel a certain way?’ That didn’t happen. I don’t know anybody who can do that.”
Levitin is the American-born professor emeritus of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at Montreal’s McGill University. He’s been writing songs since he was a kid (as a way to help him better understand the “emotional, non-brainy side of life”) and made records with various rock and new wave bands through the 1970s and 80s. None of that music got much traction beyond local radio.
Levitin knows music theory and how the circuitry of the cerebellum affects whether a tune is catchy. He has produced and consulted on albums by artists including Steely Dan and Stevie Wonder. It took him a long time, however, before he understood what separated him from the elite of the music craft: talent, yes, but diligence and a methodical process. 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 over to Joni’s house once a month or so for dinner, and she’d play me some songs she was working on,” Levitin says. “I’d come back the next month and ask her what else she had written. She’d say, ‘Nothing new, but do you remember that song I played you last month? I’ve revised it.’ ”
Levitin looked at the yellow legal pad sitting on the piano. Mitchell had changed just two words. It took her 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 allow herself even longer than that to get it right, I realized that maybe I should try that,” says Levitin, whose bestselling books include 2014′s The Organized Mind and 2008′s 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 of the sex & math material stretches back years. The easygoing This is My Refrain 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,” Levitin says. One of the verses alludes to Levitin’s frustrations as a songwriter while paying tribute to Neil Young, with the lyrics, “He could sing so earnestly, sing with so much soul/ But when I come to that D chord, I just don’t know where to go.”
The album begins with Headed For the Fall, a laid-back number with a summery vibe and a chord progression that he says “theoretically shouldn’t work.”
Country and Americana songwriting pro Rodney Crowell once told Levitin that he wasn’t spending enough time editing his lyrics. “And Rodney was right,” Levitin says. Crowell suggested Levitin study poetry to sharpen his lyricism.
Yet, practice, poetry and putting in the time doesn’t make perfect. Mitchell deliberated on a phrase for weeks. Leonard Cohen sat in a hotel room in his underwear banging his head against the floor trying to get Hallelujah just right. In the end, Levitin believes, the point isn’t perfection, but the pursuit of it.
“What becomes emotionally moving is when an artist, in any medium, is struggling against their limitations and you feel that struggle,” he says. “Even if you’re John Coltrane, the instrument doesn’t do everything you want and it doesn’t say everything you have to say. And I think that resonates with all of us.”
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