This is Your Brain on Songwriting

Lessons Learned from Levitin’s
“This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession”
Scott Anthony Andrews

I will admit it. I am late to the party, once again. I just read Levitin’s (2006) “This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession,” and loved it.  As a cognitive psychologist, Levitin makes many interesting points about how we as human process music.  For me, what is of use is to think about how some of the issues raised may be taken up in songwriting.

Levitin presents as well-researched both in depth and breadth of topics—some of which speak to, and strongly reinforce, some of the familiar tenets of songwriting.  The first point is repetition. “Repetition, when done skillfully by a master composer, is emotionally satisfying to our brains, and makes the listening experience as pleasurable as it is (Levitin, 2006, p. 153).” This is interesting; repetition is actually perceived as enjoyable; perhaps that is why many of us almost unconsciously write songs with reiterative choruses, or background vocals that effectively repeat the melody, or song forms that demand recurrences. It can be a double-edged sword; however. I well remember how immediately I took to Eiffel 65’s “I’m Blue (Da ba dee da ba daa / Da ba dee da ba daa,”) etc. The opening hook imprints almost instantly, though upon successive listens, the song lost a little something for me—perhaps too much repetition.  And that is the conundrum all us songwriters face: how to strike an effective balance of new and old within a song—new melodies, new rhymes, new lyrics, etc. (Even when, and perhaps especially when, the “old” has only recently been introduced; after all, we are talking about 3-minute songs for the most part).

Music as (Repetitive) Memory
Many of us are fond of the music we listened to during adolescence. (If we only knew….choose wisely). Turns out that our musical partialities begin to form way before that, as “The fetus hears music, as was recently discovered by Alexandra Lamont of Keele University in the UK. She found that, a year after they are born, children recognize and prefer music they were exposed to in the womb. The auditory system of the fetus is fully functional about twenty weeks after conception (Levitin, 2006, p. 202).” Wow. This points to how formative music may be to the whole human experience. As songwriters, we best heed this lesson; familiarity, memory and repetition are all related. “Memory affects the music-listening experience so profoundly that it would not be hyperbole to say that without memory there would be no music…. Music is based on repetition (Levitin, 2006, p. 153).”

Twice as Long as Short: Rhythmic Ratios
This concept is such an instinctual pull as a songwriter that I was unaware of its unconscious shaping of my music.  The idea is that we tend to use twice as many short rhythmic fragments or motifs as long ones “short-short-long.” Perhaps not unrelated, one of the most recognizable Morse Code signals is, SOS, which is three dots, three dashes and three dots. “ ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ ” uses short and long syllables, too, in this case six equal duration notes (Ma-ry had a lit-tle) followed by a long one (lamb) roughly twice as long as the short ones. The rhythmic ratio of 2:1, like the octave in pitch ratios, appears to be a musical universal (Levitin, 2006, p. 60).”  Knowing this rhythmic ratio may be of use; we may chose to interrupt it, at times, for particular effects.  Perhaps, a character in a song may be slightly off-putting, or unbalanced, the music may speak that.   Further, Levitin cites research that “indicates that there is a quantization process—equalizing durations—occurring during our neural processing of musical time. Our brains treat durations that are similar as being equal, rounding some up and some down in order to treat them as simple integer ratios such as 2:1, 3:1 and 4:1 (Levitin, 2006, p. 67).”  As precise as we may want to be with rhythmic differentiations, it is useful to understand that our brain tends to understand such differentiations within these simple ratios. Maybe this at least partially accounts for the difficulty many of us have in translating visual rhythmic symbols into their referent actions. Rhythm may be largely felt, and felt in simple rhythmic rations/patterns.

Dance is not a Kind of Music, It IS Music
Speaking of feeling the rhythm, I have met, and I certainly count myself as, a songwriter that is concerned with lyric and the overall song “concept”— sometimes more than rhythmic components.  For example, I wrote the song “The Chronoscope Trips” after reading Greene’s (2011) “The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.” I thought it clever and interesting to write a song about time travel as informed by a theoretical physicist. I may be well-reminded about the interconnection, always and already there, for  “When we ask about the evolutionary basis for music, it does no good to think about Britney or Bach. We have to think about what music was like around fifty thousand years ago. …One striking find is that in every society of which we’re aware, music and dance are inseparable (Levitin, 2006, p. 233).”  Perhaps even separating the words Dance and Music is problematic; perhaps we also need a word that (always and already) speaks to their simultaneity….more than the word DanceMusic.

It’s All About the Timbre, the Timbre, the Timbre—No Treble
I have to admit, this last point really surprised me, initially at least.  It seems that timbre is a deeply significant musical element. Consider the following:

People were given a list of song names and had to match them up with the [musical] snippet they heard. With such a short excerpt, they could not rely on melody or rhythm to identify the songs—in every case, the excerpt was less than one or two notes. The subjects could only rely on timbre, the overall sound of the song.  In the introduction, I mentioned the importance that timbre holds for composers, songwriters, and producers. Paul Simon thinks in terms of timbre; it is the first thing he listens for in his music and the music of others. Timbre also appears to hold this privileged position for the rest of us; the non-musicians in Shellenberg’s study were able to identify songs using only timbral cues a significant percentage of the time. Even when the excerpts were presented backward, so that anything overtly familiar was disrupted, they still recognized the songs (Levitin, 2006, p. 143).

So, maybe it is all about the bass, and the treble and the….
This point makes sense, if you are a singer-songwriter, consider your auditory brand. Listeners and fans are coming to appreciate not only your voice, but your voice within an overall treatment within a song—within an album—within your musical oeuvre. Think of all the things that contribute to that. I thought about Freddie Mercury’s first solo album, “Mr. Bad Guy,” released in 1985.  Mercury penned all songs, it was his voice, his choices; but he embraced different musical influences, such as disco—a significant departure from Queen’s musical roots. The album did respectfully well, but nothing like Queen’s hits. Freddie’s treatment was not Queen’s treatment; the timbre differed. Further, certain musical genres demand a kind of timbre. For example, some people may claim that country music demands such a particular timbre that being creative within it is truly a challenge.  There may be other musical genres that have a slightly larger timbre pallet; some suggest AC (Adult Contemporary) music may be. Regardless, for me, timbre really is an overlooked as aspect of writing songs. Of all the pieces that I took away from Levitin, this was the most salient. I spend a great deal of time thinking about chords, chord structure, lyrics, rhyming schemes, etc., when an overall musical timbre is most often at stake.

To conclude, I think that Levitin (2006) has much to offer us as songwriters, in the following ways:

  • Repetition
  • Music as (Repetitive) Memory
  • Twice as Long as Short: Rhythmic Ratios
  • Dance is not a Kind of Music, It IS Music
  • It’s All About the Timbre, the Timbre, the Timbre—No Treble

But, don’t take my word for it, read his book , and tell me what you get out of it. And remember, it all starts with a song…and the song started before we even knew it 😉


Greene, Brian (2011).  The hidden reality: Parallel universes and the deep laws of the cosmos. New York: Knopf.

Levitin, D.J. (2006). This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. New York: Dutton.