Book Review: This Is Your Brain on Music (2006)

Many freely admit they are addicted. I am one of them. We can’t go through a day without listening to music on the radio, a stereo or MP3 player. Purchase of concert tickets or a new release by a favorite artist ranks among the necessities of life. Snippets of songs heard in passing almost immediately bring back memories of other times and places. Regardless of how many times we may have heard them, other songs inevitably give us goose bumps.

It all seems so easy. The music just goes in your ears and there’s a range of positive to negative reaction. But as Daniel Levitin makes clear in his book, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, there is so much going on behind the scenes that even the world’s top scientists and psychologists cannot explain it. And although far from perfect, Levitin’s effort and its related web site is a worthy exploration of what we know about how and why music is such an integral part of the human experience.

Levitin’s book is, in his words, “about the science of music, from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience.” Don’t let that scare you off. The introduction establishes that this isn’t going to be simply a dry recitation about music, science and the brain. In fact, Levitin’s introduction is reminiscent of the scene in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous where the young, fictional Crowe is enthralled as he listens to The Who’s Tommy while exploring and being entranced by the LP cover. For Levitin, it is not album covers but headphones. They revealed a depth to music he had never encountered.

To me, records were no longer just about the songs anymore, but about the sound. Headphones opened up a world of sonic colors, a palette of nuances and details that went far beyond the chords and melody, the lyrics, or a particular singer’s voice. …. Headphones also made the music more personal for me; it was suddenly coming from inside my head, not out there in the world.

That experience helped lead Levitin to become a session musician, recording engineer and record producer. Yet his fascination with the perception of sound and music took him even farther, leading him to a degree is neuroscience and, ultimately, to become the head of the Levitin Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal.

The introduction is typical of how Levitin approaches the subject. He blends experiences all of us have had, songs most of us know and his personal history with the more straightforward details of music, science and scientific studies to help us understand the impact of music. And in that respect, the title may be perfect. Borrowed from the advertising campaign on the impact of illegal drugs on the brain, Levitin shows us the entirely legal effect music has on our brains and brain chemistry.

This is not always an easy task. For one, it is not easy to explain music principles and theories to non-musicians. By the same token, the anatomy and chemistry of the brain aren’t always easily grasped by those who aren’t that interested in science. That is the hurdle Levitin seeks to overcome in the opening chapters, which attempt to explain not only basic music theory and concepts but also basic brain science. Levitin describes these areas as plainly and simply as possible. Still, some of the terminology and concepts may cause a reader’s eyes to glaze over a bit and their mind to wonder if they grasp, let alone need or want to know, all the concepts. But ultimately the pay-off is worth the price.

We think it comes so easy. Throw on a CD or put the earphones from an MP3 player in your ears and you hear music. What is stunning and fascinating, though, is that your ears don’t hear music per se.

Sound is transmitted through the air by molecules vibrating at certain frequencies. These molecules bombard the eardrum, causing it to wiggle in and out depending on how hard they hit it (related to the volume or amplitude of the sound) and on how fast they’re vibrating (related to what we call pitch). But there is nothing in the molecules that tells the eardrum where they came from, or which ones are associated with which object. The molecules that were set in motion by the cat purring didn’t carry an identifying tag that says cat, and they may arrive on the eardrum at the same time and in the same region of the eardrum as the sounds from the refrigerator, the heater, Debussy, and everything else

Find that explanation a little too abstract for your tastes? This is just one of the many places Levitin makes the science understandable. He follows this explanation with an example any of us can understand. Imagine a number of people throwing as many or as few ping pong balls (sound molecules) as they want at a pillowcase stretched over a bucket (the eardrum). Standing where you cannot see the people and looking only at how the pillowcase moves, you must determine how many people are throwing, where they are and whether they are moving toward or away from the pillowcase or just standing still.

No, music doesn’t flow in the ear and into the brain as one discrete item or on its own channel, nor does any other sound in the room or on the street. Instead, the brain must extract information about the sounds and then integrate them into what we ultimately perceive as music, a cat purring or a car horn. Far from a “no-brainer,” particularly considering it happens instantaneously and on the fly.

This is just one of many examples of how Levitin relates neuroscience to our everyday experiences with music. Why do we get songs or snippets of songs “stuck in our head”? Do some people have a genetic predisposition to be top-notch or world class musicians or can a certain amount of practice make it a reachable goal for almost anyone? Why do we like or dislike certain types of music? Why do certain songs, particularly those we heard as teenagers, tend to stay in our memories for so long? And given his past musical background, Levitin also takes a practical approach to explain the emotional impact of music and how our relationship with music is such that at times we are more open and vulnerable to it than our friends and relatives

We allow [musicians] to control our emotions and even our politics — to lift us up, to bring us down, to comfort us, to inspire us. We let them into our living rooms and bedrooms when no one else is around. We let them into our ears, directly, through earbuds and headphones, when we’re not communicating with anybody else in the world.

In the end, Levitin recognizes that science cannot wholly explain our obsession with music. It is, after all, an obsession because not only does the brain process sound into music, the brain is also the vehicle by which music also affects our feelings and emotions. That is where This Is Your Brain on Music may be most successful. While examining the science of the human relationship with music, Levitin never forgets music is a personal relationship and, in fact, strives to reinforce and bolster the relationship.

The power of art is that it can connect us to one another, and to larger truths about what it means to be alive and what it means to be human.

Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music

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