This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

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This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

  • This Is Your Brain on Music The Science of a Human Obsession
In this groundbreaking union of art and science, rocker-turned-neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explores the connection between music—its performance, its composition, how we listen to it, why we enjoy it—and the human brain.

Taking on prominent thinkers who argue that music is nothing more than an evolutionary accident, Levitin poses that music is fundamental to our species, perhaps even more so than language. Drawing on the latest research and on musical examples ranging from Moz

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3 thoughts on “This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

  1. Rob Hardy "Rob Hardy"
    500 of 544 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    New Appreciation of Music and of Brains, August 7, 2006
    By 
    Rob Hardy “Rob Hardy” (Columbus, Mississippi USA) –
    (HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)
      
    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)
      

    There are questions that are too big for science; are there gods, for instance, or what is love? And maybe we will never fully find out scientifically why music does what it does and why we care about it so. But for many reasons, music ought to be a profitable subject for scientific enquiry. It is, as Pythagoras knew, an activity strongly rooted in mathematics, and the physics of music is fairly well understood. It is as universal as language; all human cultures have some sort of music, indicating it does something indispensable. And we are increasingly able to figure out, with our sophisticated brain imaging gadgets, what brains do when they hear or think about music. The neuroscience of music is the area of expertise of Daniel J. Levitin, and he writes of it in _This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession_ (Dutton), a fascinating account of current music psychology. Levitin has produced a book wonderfully accessible to lay readers, since although he is an academic (he runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University), before he became a scientist, he had been a performing musician, sound engineer, and record producer, working with names like Steely Dan and Blue Oyster Cult. He does pull examples from Bach and Beethoven, but he is obviously more comfortable citing universally-known tunes like “Happy Birthday to You”, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, or “Stairway to Heaven”. (Readers whose tastes range in previous epochs will possibly be surprised at the sophistication modern popular musicians have displayed.) Levitin has a good sense of humor and is a genial explainer.

    He starts out with a forty page first chapter “What is Music?”, which is as good a short explanation of key concepts as tone, scale, fifths, and timbre as anyone could want, and is a fine foundation for all that comes after, a collection of scientific lore and tidbits from all over. For instance, even if you are not a musician, you have a huge store of tunes in your memory. You may not have perfect pitch, the ability to know that an A flat is an A flat as soon as you hear it, but Levitin’s own research has provided surprising evidence that your sense of pitch, even if you are not a musician, is really quite good. Subjects who were asked to sing a song from memory got the absolute pitch just right, or very close; they did the same with the song’s tempo. There are differences in the brains of musicians and nonmusicians. The corpus callosum, the mass of fibers that connects the right brain hemisphere to the left, is larger in musicians, and is especially larger in those that started music training early. The overall lesson here, though, is that we are all musical, even if we are not musicians, and so non-expert musical brains are really very similar to expert ones. There are descriptions here of surprising research that makes clear how truly ready our brains are to incorporate musical experience. Fetuses in the last three months of gestation, for instance, can hear music within the womb, along with other outside and inside noises. Experiments have shown that if you repeatedly play a song into the womb, and then make sure the child does not hear it again after birth until it is one year old, and then play the music again, the infant will prefer hearing the womb-music rather than completely novel music. This was true whether the experimental music was Vivaldi or the Backstreet Boys.

    Levitin certainly has connections; he tells of discussions with Francis Crick about themes in this book, as well as with Joni Mitchell. The final chapter, “The Music Instinct”, is a response to cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, who spoke at a 1997 convention of researchers in music perception and cognition. Pinker took the dismissive stance that music was “auditory cheesecake”, tickling the parts of the brain that were really for the important functions of language and (unlike language) useless as a force in human evolution. It is not surprising that Levitin and his fellow researchers disagree. Darwin himself felt that musical tones were used in conveying emotion and that those who were able to expend energy in singing or playing were demonstrating biological and sexual fitness. Musical success does make for high numbers of opportunities for spreading one’s genes (just ask Mick Jagger). Interest in music peaks in adolescence, indicating a role in sexual selection. Music has been around longer than agriculture, and there is no evidence that language actually preceded music in our species. It may have promoted the cognitive development that was harnessed for speech. Only in the past few hundred years did music become a spectator activity, but in the eons when it could have shaped our social evolution, it was a group activity that may have promoted group togetherness and synchrony. It is an engaging final argument that serves to emphasize the importance of all…

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  2. Andrew Palmer "atp"
    616 of 686 people found the following review helpful
    1.0 out of 5 stars
    Extended Wikipedia article meets self-serving autobiography, December 28, 2007
    By 
    Andrew Palmer “atp” (Huntsville, AL) –
    (REAL NAME)
      

    This review is from: This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Paperback)
    I’m a musician who’s been thinking about reading this book since seeing it favorably reviewed. I read it after receiving it as a gift this Christmas, and unfortunately found it to read like an extended Wikipedia entry. Opinions and speculation are stated as facts, claims are not justified with evidence, the author frequently oversteps his expertise, and the writing is otherwise amateurish, lacking direction and leaving loose ends. It seems as though the author wrote it off the top of his head without researching his points or his examples, and a number of statements are false. Other reviewers have listed their pet gripes (some of which have been fixed in the paperback copy), here are a few of mine that haven’t been mentioned (and that still exist in the paperback):

    -The detailed discussion of the Haydn’s Surprise Symphony theme (p92-93) is flawed at every turn: He uses the term parallelism (a term reserved for describing a particular harmonic device) incorrectly to refer to the melody. He describes the melody as going up “just a little” when what we have at that point is the *largest interval leap* anywhere in the theme. Then, “the highest note we’ve encountered so far” in the melody is incorrectly identified as the fifth. We have already (just two notes ago) heard the C above the G he is referring to. (The highest note is the tonic, not the fifth). Finally, the “surprise” in the Surprise symphony, is identified in the wrong place–eight measures too soon. Why so much detail about something the author hasn’t researched? Not only that, but the misunderstandings lead him to bad analysis.

    -In one of the book’s stupidest sentences, the author claims that “A schema for Dixieland includes foot-tapping, up-tempo music, and unless the band was trying to be ironic, we would not expect there to be overlap between their repertoire and that of a funeral procession” (p117). Dixieland bands playing funeral processions is, of course, an important and well-known New Orleans tradition.

    -Beethoven’s Ode to Joy theme from his 9th symphony is used as an example of violating expectations (p 119). He describes that we expect the first phrase to end on “do” and we are surprised to hear it end on “re.” In the second phrase we are surprised to hear it end on “do” after hearing the first phrase end on “re.” Most musicians would disagree with this analysis. This phrase structure is so common, in fact, that there are terms for paired phrases such as this. (The first phrase, typically ending on a member of the dominant chord as happens here, is called the antecedent. The second phrase ending on the tonic is called the consequent. Together the pairing is called a period, or informally a call-and-response.) What is described here as Beethoven’s clever violation of expectation is a very good example of the very most common phrase structure in all of music.

    -Later, in describing how jazz musicians play over AABA song form (p238-239), Dr. Levitin explains that the “B” section is the “chorus.” I think you’ll find that by far the most common term for the B section is the *bridge,* the term “chorus” being reserved for one entire iteration of the form. He goes on to describe this as a point of confusion, but it’s not if you use the usual terms. Confused himself, he also says “Some songs have a C section, called the bridge.” One of his own examples, “All of Me” is ABAC. However, most musicians would say that this song has no bridge, and certainly the C section of “All of Me” cannot be considered the bridge.

    I don’t have the time or the space for a line-by-line critique of the entire book, but suffice it to say that my examples are not cherry-picked (rather the positive aspects in some reviews seem to be cherry picked, and some of the positive reviews are not so positive). The writing throughout the book is imprecise, inaccurate, misleading, and interspersed with nonsense. The anecdotes make up a conspicuously large portion of the book, and are conspicuously self-serving (dropping the names of rock stars and famous scientists). He has an entire chapter on meeting Crick (of the DNA-discovering pair Watson and Crick). According to the author’s account, he was nervous, and had a past memory that kept him from introducing himself. What a relief to find that after finally meeting, Crick enjoyed his company and found his research fascinating! (“Crick’s eyes lit up. He sat up straight in his chair. ‘Music,’ he said. He brushed away his lepton colleague.”) On reflection, the topic of music and the brain seems less the main point of the book, and more a jumping off point for a superficial, glowing autobiography. I was disappointed.

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  3. Craig Matteson
    315 of 364 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Fascinating information on how our brain is involved in our perceptions of music, September 21, 2006
    By 
    Craig Matteson (Saline, MI) –
    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)
      
    (HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)
      

    The first thing is that this is a book expressing ideas about how the human mind processes music and how the brain is involved with that processing (not HOW the brain processes it, which no one knows), rather than a book on music. While I am not obsessed by the topic, I find the exploration of the mind and brain function fascinating. My interest was piqued when my father was taken by a brain tumor and I tried to find material on the subject. I read “Phantoms in the Brain” by V. S. Ramachandran and then some articles by others in the field who claimed the mind is simply an illusion created by brain function, that our sense of consciousness and choosing is simply false.

    This has always seemed wrong to me, no matter how much of our brain function occurs without our “mind” or “consciousness” being involved in any way. Being a pianist, it has seemed to me that there is no biological necessity to play Chopin. And when I sit down at the piano, I choose what to play, how to play it, and whether to learn the piece in the first place. I was amused when I read articles by Pinker and others struggling in trying to come to terms with some evolutionary reason for music. Some simply dismiss it (I think because it is so inconvenient to their models), others try and find it a way to attract mates (as this author does), others find it an accidental use of some other evolutionarily advantageous trait even though they can’t quite identify what it is or was.

    So, I was glad to read this book because of my interest in the brain and mind along with my passion for music. It is indeed a very interesting book that I could not put down. Daniel Levitin is a scientist whose work involves trying to understand how the mind perceives music and how that maps into the brain. It helps that he is also a musician. He worked in a commercial rock and roll band and as a record producer. Now, I am a classical musician and have a degree in music theory, so it is unsurprising that he and I view some aspects of music differently. In fact, I found some of his descriptions a bit sloppy and more simplistic than the simplification required in communicating to the general non-musician reading public. But then again, I know nothing about the technical terminology of brain function.

    Just a few examples that stopped me cold. On page 31 Levitin asserts that the way we use sharps and flats is artificially complicated. He says, “there is no reason for the system to be so complicated, but it is what we are stuck with.” Well, actually, there are several great reasons that have to do with the way our music system has evolved over the past eight centuries and more. There weren’t keys or chords or even scales in the beginning. As soon as things would become settled in one generation a new generation would come along and stir things up because they wanted something a bit more this or a lot more that. So, the musical system adapted to accommodate the new music.

    The idea of those keys and chords Levitin refers to as features of all music are really only a few hundred years old while the notions of modulation or “changing keys” is younger yet. And as he notes, non-Western music is organized more along “melodic” and “motivic” principles than our notions of functional harmony.

    Some experimental music systems have been proposed over the past couple of hundred years and they have caught on about as well as Esperanto replaced English, French, or the hundreds and thousands of other natural languages and dialects. And for similar reasons. A complicated “natural” system, even with their inconvenient irregularities, will outlast a regular and tidy “artificial” system every time.

    When he was discussing “keys” around page 36, he asserts that tonal prominence is given to the stated “key” through assertion by repetition. Actually, no. It is not a simple subject, but the tonal center of a major key is asserted by the combination of perfect fifths versus the one diminished fifth on the note a half step main keynote, plus the combination of major and minor thirds plus the combination of whole and half steps. When evaluated, there are a number of places in the scale that are ambiguous, but there are unique combinations that become pointers to the key center. And this is why the minor key, which the author asserts has purely cultural status (wrong), is used by composers to connote affects with more ambiguity.

    C-major and a-minor (in its natural form) use exactly the same notes. When you play a-minor in its natural form you will eventually want to get to C-major (and that is why most classical piece in the minor mode modulate first to the relative major key rather than the dominant as is done in major keys). In order to make a-minor sound like a tonal center the harmonic form has a “raised” seventh scale degree (one of those pesky accidentals Levitin dislikes) so that it is a…

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