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Scientist-author Daniel Levitin on picking up music at an older age


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: Two years ago we brought you the story of a bestselling book called "Successful Aging," and its scientist-author, who had plenty of tips on the best ways to grow older - including learning and doing new things. Now he's putting his own advice into practice with a little help from some noteworthy friends. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Mike Cerre has our story.

Mike Cerre: Neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin, wrote the bestselling, "This Is Your Brain On Music", and is best known for studying the effects of music on the brain. Including those of prominent musicians--like Sting.

Daniel Levitin: I guess you've never had a scan before.

Sting: No, I haven't.

Daniel Levitin: This is going to raise up and go back in the machine

Daniel Levitin: We asked him to compose music in the scanner. And I saw a bunch of activity in the visual cortex, the back of the brain visual section. He said, "Oh well, I think of composition as architecture. And I'm building structure musically."

Mike Cerre: A musician and studio engineer himself, he's also helped produce several gold albums for the likes of Steely Dan. But since his college rock band days with his group, "The Mortals", Daniel Levitin now 65, has wanted to write and sing albums of his own.

Daniel Levitin: I didn't do it in my mid-twenties because everybody in the music business told me not to. That this was not my calling. Well, coming up into 60, I thought, as a neuroscientist, I knew that this with the science of aging had to say, and that is that as you head towards 60, you're going to grow complacent and set in your ways and you're not going to want to try new things.

Mike Cerre: Any thoughts he might have had about his scientific research possibly giving him a leg up on the songwriting process were quickly dashed once he started on an album of his own.

Daniel Levitin: There's the science of music and the brain, and there's performing and writing and producing, and those are probably not going to meet.

Rodney Crowell: It's greed not money …

Mike Cerre: Country star and two-time Grammy-winning songwriter Rodney Crowell was one the first professionals to critique Levitin's work in progress over several years.

Rodney Crowell: No one can teach you how to write songs. Sometimes I think don't give up your day job is the proper encouragement. But in the case of Dan, I'm going to give him some real input on this because he's a pro. Find the truth, find the truth in the song and learn to recognize when you're not being truthful. And that can-- that can manifest in trying to force a couplet or a soft rhyme into a couplet that doesn't ring true.

Daniel Levitin: Taking Rodney Crowell's advice. I realized that maybe the reason nobody liked my songs before was because I was writing them for someone else and they didn't connect deeply with me

Mike Cerre: Joni Mitchell was another friend and music advisor.

Daniel Levitin: I had become friends with Joni in the 90s and for a while there we were getting together at her house once a month for dinner, and she would play me whatever song she was working on. And at one point I said. Tell me what do you what do you what do you think of these songs.? OK. Uh, she said, Sing me a line. So I sing her line. She says, See, you're messing your vowels up. You don't speak your vowels that way and you're doing the soft "r". She went with me syllable by syllable and basically taught me to get out of my own way to stop trying so hard to sound like someone else or to be a singer.

Mike Cerre: After seven years of reworking songs he had written the moment of truth came at this New York recording session for his new album "Sex & Math", accompanied by veteran studio musicians.

Daniel Levitin: You might like fast music, but you're slow in your years. Most people would have hit 50 long before you cleared it.

Daniel Levitin: They're all very personal and I never stopped writing songs. I've been doing that since I was a teenager, but "what took me so long" is that I guess I just wasn't ready and I was afraid of being judged and being in the spotlight.

Daniel Levitin: What took you so long. And I realize it's cold to live in the shadows of your dreams and your ambitions. That is a very cold place. And I realize it's cold to live in the shadows of your dreams and your ambitions. That is a very cold place.

Mike Cerre: Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist, author, lecturer, musician, song writer, singer. Will the real Daniel Levitin. Please stand up.

Daniel Levitin: You may like fast cars, but you're slow shifting gears…

Mike Cerre: So what do you think peoples' brains will be like on the music of Daniel Levitin?

Daniel Levitin: So if anybody listens first, I hope that they'll like it, meaning that they'll. They'll have some emotional experience…

Mike Cerre: … and if they don't, if it's not a success, commercial success or success by any other standard is it still a success for you in the fact that you did it?

Daniel Levitin: It's very much a success for me if it doesn't sell any copies at all.

Daniel Levitin: … and baby it's cold outside.

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