July 08, 2021
Bestselling author Michael Pollan tries to get more out of life by temporarily giving up…
David Byrne As a kid I heard rock and pop and soul music and whatever on that little transistor radio that I had. So, the quality audio quality would be less than what you’d hear on a phone. That was enough to kind of tell me in some kind of way that there was another world out there other than the world that in my little community. Another world beyond what I was aware of in school, and it seemed like a world that was really exciting and innovative and another universe, even.
Everyone is trying ...
Music was telling me all that. It was telling me that there might be people there that had the same interests that I do and that was exciting. How do I find these people? Where, where are these people?
Heaven, heaven is a place, a place where nothing, nothing ever happens ...
Dacher Keltner I’ll never forget walking into a friend’s dorm room in college in 1979 and hearing the song “Heaven” by Talking Heads for the first time. It changed my life.
I’m Dacher Keltner, and this is The Science of Happiness.
Today, we’re launching a new series about how music affects happiness. What draws us to certain melodies and rhythms? How do we find our identities in certain genres of music? And why can it make us feel more connected, or even soothe us to sleep?
This week, I have the privilege of speaking with David Byrne, the former frontman of Talking Heads, about how music can help us communicate and connect.
Later in the show, we’ll learn about the science of music and social bonding.
But first, David Byrne.
David, all I can say is your work gives me the chills, and thank you for being on our show.
David Byrne Thank you.
Dacher Keltner I know you got into music early and just was wondering, you know, what it meant to you as a kid. What sounds meant to you? What moved you about music?
David Byrne In high school I taught myself to play guitar and I would play other people’s songs and play in, like, college coffeehouses and things like that. And I was very, very shy as a person and music and performance, gave me an outlet. It’s hard to imagine what I would have been without having that outlet.
I was very, very uncomfortable socially. It seems paradoxical, but when I stepped on stage, I felt like now I can say what I want, I can perform these things, I can do, sometimes, kind of outrageous things. And that’s my way of communicating things that I’m thinking about, things I’m feeling. It’s also maybe a way of saying, “Well, here I am. I exist. I’m doing my best to communicate here.” And then the minute I stepped off the stage, I kind of retreated into myself.
So that was that was kind of a life-saver there.
Dacher Keltner I loved reading your book How Music Works, and I was really struck by your hypothesis about where music comes from. There’s a classic idea that it’s all about the expression of passion. But you have a different take. Tell us about that.
David Byrne Yes, I’m not denying that there’s passion in music that gets written and composed and performed, but I’m saying it’s also shaped by all these other factors and contexts, and just as much. And those might be the acoustics of the room that it’s being performed in, it might be the financial situation of how you as a writer or a performer are getting paid. And then, there’s things like the actual instruments, those kind of limit you to what you can do. And then, there’s kind of the technology of recording and the technology of music dissemination, all those sorts of things really shape what kind of music we hear and what kind of music gets written and what we do. We work within our limitations. And I think there’s nothing wrong with that, but it definitely shapes the form that the music’s taking.
Dacher Keltner So I want to turn to American Utopia, a Broadway show you created. You recently collaborated with Spike Lee on a film version of it. What led you to create American Utopia?
David Byrne Not too many years ago I did a record and tour with the artist St. Vincent and we had a fairly large brass section…
And I realized that, uh, the brass section could move around. It’s, of course, you, everybody thinks of marching bands or second line bands, New Orleans, things like that. So, we managed to have them all be mobile. So, I could kind of dance and move with them. I brought in various choreographers and things, so it was kind of inching toward something here.
And then, when I was thinking about this more recent tour and show, I thought, what, if everybody could be mobile like that? Not just like brass players or guitar players or singers, what if everybody could be mobile? Even the drummers, even the keyboard player. And sure enough, the technology is there. Some of it, the technology is quite new. The technology that allows a keyboard player to be unencumbered by cables and wires and all sorts of things like that. It’s, it’s very new.
When that became possible, I realized now I can have an empty stage. The show becomes about us. I thought now it’s really kind of stripped down to just us human beings, carrying our instruments and kind of how we relate to the audience in front of us and they relate to us and they see us as just people just like them. So, that really affected the show a lot.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. As you begrudgingly say, you know, you, you honor what humans like to look at most, which is other humans.
David Byrne I do. I mean, we’ve evolved to look at other people and really kind of take them in and see what they mean to us, especially their faces. So, I thought, well, that’s what we like to look at. That’s what we’re most fascinated by. Let’s, let’s do that. Let’s own that idea.
Dacher Keltner American Utopia starts with you barefoot in a gray suit, holding a model brain. And you talk about how we extend far beyond neurons that are contained within our skulls.
David Byrne Who we are extends beyond ourselves. Through the connections between all of us.
Dacher Keltner And there is this idea that’s really emerging right now that music is a container of our identities over time and across boundaries. And it’s a way that the self extends, like you say. I’m just curious how you got to that idea?
David Byrne After a while I thought well, we have to acknowledge we’re social animals. Uh, maybe not quite like ants, but there’s, but we do share that, uh, what’s it called? Eusocial?
Dacher Keltner Yeah. We’re like bees and some birds.
David Byrne Yes. We share some of that. With each species it’s a little bit different how that kind of social connection works, but, that’s part of who we are. And I realized that, we’re not just individuals. Our identity, who we are as entities and people and whatever, is intimately tied up with other people. And, we don’t exist just as atomized beings. We exist in a social situation and that’s, that’s how we evaluate ourselves. What often makes us happy, all kinds of things. It’s not, maybe, the only thing. We, we exist as individuals, too, but I thought that to deny that that is part of what we are, is to deny what it is to be a human being. And so I thought, well, I can use that as a little metaphor in the show and talk about how that the neural nets are actually mirrored outside of ourselves in our network of social connections.
David Byrne We’re only tourists in this life. Only tourists but the view is nice. Now everybody’s coming to my house. And I’m never going to be alone…
Dacher Keltner American Utopia offers this journey from being confined to our own minds to connecting with others and then ultimately, with the world.
At the end of the performance, you cover the Janelle Monáe song, “Hell You Talmbout,” which recites the names of Black people killed by police.
What led to that?
David Byrne When we were kind of rehearsing the show, it was a tour before it was a Broadway show. I’ve often done kind of a cover song, somebody else’s song at the end. And it’s often a kind of a lightweight thing where we kind of throw off the burden of me doing my own songs and what that means or anything, that’s just something for fun where everybody can just dance and relax. But I thought, I’ve kind of felt like in these days, and this was, I don’t know, three or four years ago, in these days, we have to do something more, now. We have to kind of really speak to the world that we live in and we have to address this stuff. We can’t just be having a party. We have to acknowledge what’s going on in the world. And, I’d heard that song done by her. And I thought it was incredible, incredibly moving. I thought it was a wonderful way of doing a protest song that was in some ways more of an elegy to these people who had been murdered. It was really a beautiful way of acknowledging what was happening in the world. And kind of talking about these people who are no longer with us. And, uh, so I asked the band what they would think of doing that.
And I wrote to her, um, I think St. Vincent, maybe give me Janelle’s email and, that’s how that works. And, uh, so I asked her, what do you think of yeah, what do you think of my white man of a certain age doing this particular song and she, to my relief, she loved the idea. So we started doing it and, um, we did it as an encore because we kind of figured it’s a very kind of emotional punch to the gut and we didn’t feel like we could follow it with a lot of, kind of happy, let’s-all-dance songs.
So, the show that we were doing on tour would, it would build up to a, kind of a real kind of ecstatic, joyful crescendo and then we’d hit everybody with this punch in the gut, like, yeah, but this is the world we live in. And not everybody liked that, of course. Some people really didn’t like it. But to our relief, a lot of people said that they really appreciated that we decided to do that. And they said that was really necessary and it really meant a lot. And they were really glad that we did that. So, I thought, okay. It may not have ended everything on a totally happy note, but we’re going to keep doing this.
American Utopia Performers Hell You Talmbout. Hell You Talmbout.
David Byrne Despite all that’s happened and despite all that’s still happening, there’s still possibility. James Baldwin said, “I still believe that we can do with this country something that’s not done before.”
American Utopia Performer Hell You Talmbout. Hell You Talmbout. Hell You Talmbout.
Dacher Keltner This is one of the more divisive times in modern history and amidst it all you launched “Reasons to Be Cheerful,” which you call ‘a self help magazine for people who hate self help magazines.’ Why’d you do that?
David Byrne This project or this idea came to me, well, more than four years ago. So, it wasn’t just a reaction to Trump and all that. But before that, it becomes pretty apparent that all sorts of forces were kind of tearing the country apart, and that algorithms or whatever else you might call it tend to prioritize bad news. We’re kind of barraged by it and just kind of, it kind of, uh, it’s very hard to combat that, and not just internalize it and feel like the world is a very dark place and all that. So, as a kind of remedy or therapy for myself, I started, kind of, collecting bits of news that I’d read, and I just put them into folders on my computer.
So, I kept doing that for myself and it was kind of sporadic. I would post things when I could and when I had time, when I found them. And then I realized that the impact that was going to have is going to be very minimal if it was, me, just me doing it in a kind of erratic way like that. So at some point, about a year and a half ago, I decided to take the plunge and hire some real editors, writers. And we would publish things on a regular basis, two or three times a week, we’d publish a new story. And we started doing that. And, I’ve discovered from the bit of feedback we get that, yes, it does have that effect on other people where other people feel like, Oh, thank God for this.
Dacher Keltner And when you’re out in the world in all the different ways that you are, what, what makes you feel cheerful?
David Byrne What makes me feel cheerful? Well, yes, often it’s human connection, whether it’s with my friends, band mates, family, or sometimes it’s other kinds of connections where, I’ll share some kind of funny insight with, say, a woman at the checkout counter in the grocery store and we’ll share a laugh. Or, someone that I’ll cross paths with, a complete stranger, you’ll start to kind of exchange a story and they’ll give you their insight on something or their opinion on something you’ll make a connection. And sometimes you can laugh about something with a complete stranger and then just go on about your way. But that to me can be really transformative. It’s like both of you walk away from that little interaction feeling a little bit better about other people.
Dacher Keltner I guess my last question, uh, returns us to American Utopia, David. And the last song that you sing is “We’re On a Road to Nowhere.”
David Byrne We’re on a road to nowhere, come on inside.
Dacher Keltner You know, and it’s your mixture of, absolute joy and ebullience and delight, and you know, a little bit of, um, absurdity, if you will. And I’m just, where do you think we’re on a road to? Where are you on a road to?
David Byrne [Laughs] It’s funny that, that song people kind of, if they look at just the text, they sometimes think, “Oh, this is really depressing.” But that’s the nature of music that you can, you can own what might seem a depressing statement like that, but with music you can reframe it as being kind of the joy in the present moment, the joy in being alive. And that we all know we’re going to expire someday, but we’re having a wonderful time in spite of that, in spite of the fact that we’re all going to be gone someday. So, it’s nice that music can hold those contradictory ideas and kind of simultaneously, which is an interesting thing.
Dacher Keltner It’s one of the best things that we can do for happiness, as well.
David Byrne Yeah.
Dacher Keltner Well, David Byrne, I am humbled to be in conversation with you. You have, let me see the world through that lens that you just described in many different art forms and I am very grateful for all you’ve given to us. So thank you for being on our show.
David Byrne Thank you. Talk to you guys soon.
Come along and take that ride and it’s alright, baby it’s alright. And it’s very far away but it’s growing day by day but it’s alright, baby it’s alright.
Dacher Keltner What is it about music that brings people together?
Patrick Savage Primates will groom one another, and that’s how they really kind of connect socially. And humans, we don’t really, kind of, pick lice from each other’s fur very much, but we love to talk and we love even more to sing together.
Dacher Keltner More on how music can connect, up next.
Patrick Savage There’s been all this debate about, you know, did music evolve to soothe infants or did it evolve to bond groups or did it evolve to attract mates. And these are kind of seen as, you know, competing and mutually exclusive. But these are really just different forms of the same thing. It’s music bringing people together, whether it’s in a group or whatever it is, music can bring people together.
Dacher Keltner Patrick Savage is an associate professor in the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies at Keio University in Japan. Patrick, thanks so much for being on the show.
Patrick Savage My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Dacher Keltner We often think of music as being expressive of interior things, and you’re really making the case that it is just fundamentally a part of our social fabric. What got you to think about the social dimensions of music?
Patrick Savage One big thing for me was actually singing in an a cappella group in college. I sang in a group at Amherst College called the Zumbyes. And that was a really just kind of my most strongest kind of feeling of being in a group. It just felt so natural to me.
I went to live in Japan and I studied a lot of traditional Japanese music. I started to study music around the world. If you look around the world, the social nature of music is just almost so obvious that it seems a little silly to have to state it. But it did need to be said, I think.
Dacher Keltner It’s interesting, you know, you talk about your deep origins of your interest in music and singing a cappella in college, and there was something socially transcendent about that. And, you know, when we interviewed David Byrne, he said really much the same, which is that when he, you know, he confesses to being really shy and slightly awkward and he gets on stage and there’s really a different kind of social feeling that he falls into. What does your work tell us about how singing and performing and hearing music is like this communication tool that Byrne was describing?
Patrick Savage Getting on stage, connecting with people through song, throuhh music has a special rush to it. And, in my own research, you know, we focus on what are the features that allow this connection to happen, things like, you know, the harmony and the rhythms that allow people to synchronize. Even if you’re listening to music, if you’re not actually moving, your mind is, you’re kind of, you’re keeping the beat. And sometimes you will see yourself actually voluntarily moving along, tapping on to the beat. So that kind of helps us to connect. Even if we’re not making music together, just by listening and interacting with music, you’re kind of actually synchronizing your brains.
Dacher Keltner The literature on music really is advancing pretty dramatically. And we’re starting to get to the neuroscience. And, you write about these two, quote, reward systems that may be engaged by music, dopamine and oxytocin. And that immediately raises interesting possibilities about different forms of pleasure we feel during music, different emotions, which we study. Tell us about how that works, like how these different reward systems are involved in music and what they mean.
Patrick Savage Very simply, there are certain chemicals that our brain releases to reward us for doing things that are evolutionarily valuable, like eating food. We need to do that to survive and to encourage us and other species to do that. We kind of get this reward and feel good when we do it. Same with sex. We need to have sex to reproduce and evolve. So we really like doing that. And our brain makes us feel good when we do it.
And the same thing happens with connecting with other people. So, for humans and also many primates, you know, being social is a very important part of our experience. And so, things like grooming; primates will groom one another and that’s how they really kind of connect socially. And in humans, we don’t really, kind of, pick lice from each other’s fur very much, but we love to talk and we love even more to sing together. And that’s where, you know, we feel really good making music together. But I think and many other people think that it’s deeper than that and the social connections that we make through music are so rewarding because they’re actually evolved to help us do things that are really, really valuable and build these truly important connections with other people.
Dacher Keltner I know we’re learning a lot about the hominid evolution of music when, you know, when people think it emerged. And then you’re arriving with this idea that alongside our evolution of our social bonding in our community, is music. Tell us your evolutionary story of music and its role in social bonding.
Patrick Savage I think the tricky part is when you talk about causality and did music evolve for the purpose of bonding or did it evolve for other purposes and then just happened to kind of allow us to do this as a byproduct? And there’s a long history of debate in evolutionary studies about music, about music as an adaptation versus a byproduct. Maybe music wasn’t a specific adaptation. Maybe it’s somehow a byproduct of language evolution. But we kind of wanted to get beyond this, sort of, adaptation and byproduct idea.
Things don’t have to be one or the other. Things can evolve for one purpose and then be co-opted for another purpose. Things that started off as cultural inventions, like fire or dairy farming, dairy herding, can then go on to have feedback effects on genes and cause us to have genetic changes. And so we argue that something like that probably happened to music and musicality, which is the capacity to perceive and produce music.
Dacher Keltner For several hundred years people have thought of music as this sublime realm. It’s almost spiritual. It resists all the rational tools and the analytical tools of science. What are some of the big mysteries for you when you think about being both a practitioner and then a scientist trying to understand music?
Patrick Savage I’m not sure if I call this a mystery exactly, but one thing that really drives a lot of our research is, you know, what is the value of music? We’re always kind of required to defend why is it worth doing music, you know, if we have music in the schools or cutting the budgets, why should we spend this money on teaching music when we could be using it for, you know, like math or reading?
And so a lot of the research in music science is designed to try to provide some data to say, “Look, we need to keep music.” And I think most people understand, you know, we need to, like, it’s been there since the ancient Greeks have included music as part of a fundamental part of education. But it’s still hard to really justify why.
And I think that’s part of the idea for the social bonding thing is it’s more of these intangible social benefits of music that are so important. I think we’re seeing that right now in the coronavirus pandemic is that people want to connect with each other, they want to make music. And we’re really feeling that keen, social distancing, the social losses very, very profoundly. And so I hope that our contribution to kind of the science and music can help to just justify the social value of music and not have to rely on things like test scores or healing us or things like that.
Dacher Keltner Well, Patrick Savage, I wanted to thank you for being on the show. It’s been just enlightening to follow all these cool findings that you’re bringing out about, you know, what’s universal to music and what it does for us and how important it is to the fabric of our society. So, thanks so much.
Patrick Savage Thank you, Dacher. It’s been my pleasure.
[Rosey Chan humming]
Dacher Keltner On our next episode we’ll be exploring how music can calm, soothe, and even help put us to sleep.
Rosey Chan What I’m trying to create is a kind of musical pharmacy without sounding too clinical about that. Because I do genuinely believe that music is a healing tool.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
And thanks for sharing your own favorite songs. Mark Enders of Townsville, Australia wrote that he gets the chills every time he hears the melody and lyrics of ‘Brothers in Arms’ by Dire Straits.
Mark Enders “But it’s written in the starlight and every line in your palm, we’re fools to make war on our brothers in arms.”
Dacher Keltner Mark wrote, “It’s nice to dream of a time when there will be no place for war, and this song always takes me to that place.”
What music brings you happiness? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science center and PRX. Our senior producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producer is Haley Gray. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. Our Editor in Chief is Jason Marsh.