November 29, 2010

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession By Daniel J. Levitin

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
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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. Drawing on the latest research and on musical examples ranging from Mozart to Duke Ellington to Van Halen, Levitin reveals:
• How composers produce some of the most pleasurable effects of listening to music by exploiting the way our brains make sense of the world
• Why we are so emotionally attached to the music we listened to as teenagers, whether it was Fleetwood Mac, U2, or Dr. Dre
• That practice, rather than talent, is the driving force behind musical expertise
• How those insidious little jingles (called earworms) get stuck in our heads

And, taking on prominent thinkers who argue that music is nothing more than an evolutionary accident, Levitin argues that music is fundamental to our species, perhaps even more so than language. This Is Your Brain on Music is an unprecedented, eye-opening investigation into an obsession at the heart of human nature.

Product Details

  • Amazon Sales Rank: #3106 in Books
  • Published on: 2007-08-28
  • Original language: English
  • Number of items: 1
  • Binding: Paperback
  • 322 pages


  • ISBN13: 9780452288522
  • Condition: USED - Very Good
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.
Think of a song that resonates deep down in your being. Now imagine sitting down with someone who was there when the song was recorded and can tell you how that series of sounds was committed to tape, and who can also explain why that particular combination of rhythms, timbres and pitches has lodged in your memory, making your pulse race and your heart swell every time you hear it. Remarkably, Levitin does all this and more, interrogating the basic nature of hearing and of music making (this is likely the only book whose jacket sports blurbs from both Oliver Sacks and Stevie Wonder), without losing an affectionate appreciation for the songs he's reducing to neural impulses. Levitin is the ideal guide to this material: he enjoyed a successful career as a rock musician and studio producer before turning to cognitive neuroscience, earning a Ph.D. and becoming a top researcher into how our brains interpret music. Though the book starts off a little dryly (the first chapter is a crash course in music theory), Levitin's snappy prose and relaxed style quickly win one over and will leave readers thinking about the contents of their iPods in an entirely new way. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal
Adult/High School–Levitin's fascination with the mystery of music and the study of why it affects us so deeply is at the heart of this book. In a real sense, the author is a rock 'n' roll doctor, and in that guise dissects our relationship with music. He points out that bone flutes are among the oldest of human artifacts to have been found and takes readers on a tour of our bio-history. In this textbook for those who don't like textbooks, he discusses neurobiology, neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, empirical philosophy, Gestalt psychology, memory theory, categorization theory, neurochemistry, and exemplar theory in relation to music theory and history in a manner that will draw in teens. A wonderful introduction to the science of one of the arts that make us human.–Will Marston, Berkeley Public Library, CA

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Scientific American
Everyone knows that music can calm a savage beast, rouse a marching platoon or move lovers to tears. But no one knows exactly how. Daniel Levitin, a professional musician, record producer and now neuroscientist at McGill University, explains the latest thinking into why tunes touch us so deeply. He also speculates about whether specific pathways have evolved in our brain for making and listening to music. Using brain imaging, Levitin has documented neural activation in people as they listen to music, revealing a novel cascade of excitation that begins in the auditory system and spreads to regions related to planning, expectation and language as well as arousal, pleasure, mood and rhythmic movement. "Music listening, performance and composition engage nearly every area of the brain that we have so far identifi ed and involve nearly every neural subsystem," he notes. Music’s effects on neurons are so distributed that in some cases stroke victims who can no longer decipher letters can still read music, and some impaired individuals who cannot button a sweater can nevertheless play the piano. Levitin describes new insights into these conditions as well as disorders that cause certain individuals to lack empathy, emotional perception and musicality. He and others suspect a cluster of genes may influence both outgoingness and music ability. He also posits that music promotes cognitive development. Not surprisingly, music reaches deep into the brain’s most primitive structures—including our ancient "reptilian brain" tied to motivation, reward and emotion. Music elevates dopamine levels in the brain’s mood and pleasure centers in ways similar to those triggered by narcotics and antidepressants. Levitin also explains how the neural underpinnings of auditory stimulation and mate selection reach far back in life’s evolutionary scheme. Levitin has no agenda per se, although the book is a rebuttal of sorts to scientists who say music has served no purpose other than to pleasurably stimulate auditory nerve endings. He simply explains an emerging view about the coevolution of music and the brain. To tell his tale, Levitin engagingly weaves together strands of his own life as a professional musician (who dropped out of college to form a band) with those of his transformation into a neuroscientist. To revel in Ra vel’s BolĂ©ro or Charlie Parker’s Koko, he reminds us, is to stimulate the brain in a "choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems"—a ballet of brain regions "ex quisitely orchestrated."

Richard Lipkin

Customer Reviews

New Appreciation of Music and of Brains5
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 that the book has presented before, a demonstration that looking at an important human activity in a scientific way only increases our wonder and delight in the activity itself.

Extended Wikipedia article meets self-serving autobiography1
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.

Fascinating information on how our brain is involved in our perceptions of music5
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 half-step below the key center (g-sharp in a-minor instead of the g-natural the key signature would call for) in order to provide a cadence as satisfying as the normal defining cadence in the major key. But this is getting too technical, and may be why the author avoided these discussions. After all, this is a book for the general reader and one must simplify things that are sometimes difficult to simplify.

Another time he uses the argot of commercial rock music in a way that would be confusing to people trained in traditional musical grammar (what is usually called music theory). At one point, he is writing fondly of the music of Joni Mitchell and her difficulty in finding a bass player who is sympathetic to and compatible with her approach to the sound of her music. Levitin recounts a conversation with Mitchell when they talked about most bass player wanting to play the roots of the chords of her music when she didn't want them to play roots, just play something that sounds good. OK. But bass lines don't always play the root note of every chord. That would be idiotic and boring. So, they do add passing tones and other "non-harmonic" tones. The problem wasn't that the bass players were so dim as to want to play only the fundamental notes of the chord (which would be boring indeed), but that they wanted defined harmonies at each moment in the piece, but Joni views her music more linearly. She can let harmonies from one chord linger into the sound of the next chord. Mitchell hears the music going from here to there and the stuff in between is a path between the departure and arrival points, but might not be a traditional triad. OK. That is fine. It is called voice leading or counterpoint. But pop musicians usually don't study that aspect of music.

It is important to note that much of music is not really analyzable without understanding voice leading. Not everything is just chord-chord-chord outside of the freshman four part chorale writing exercises. Believe me, there is no harmonic structure that Joni Mitchell is going to create that hasn't been done before, no matter how unique or personal her "sound" or timbre as Levitin likes to call it.

Anyway, it is clear that Levitin approaches music from the point of view of pleasure and the joy of sound rather than the idea of meaning because that is much harder to define let alone map in the brain. When the author is talking about the parts of the brain that are activated when listening to music, it is all quite interesting and I enjoyed it very much. He is very enamored of the idea of schema and taps into the Chomsky model of generative grammar, a model that has had tremendous descriptive power, but has been quite lacking in explanatory power.

The author uses the idea of the subtle rhythmic and pitch changes that a Frank Sinatra or other master musician uses as creating their effects because they violate some sort of schema built into our brains. It is true that we do try to impose order on anything. We want things to fit together and will stick purposes in where there isn't one. However, the kind of subtle changes Levitin describes are called expression by musicians for a reason. Just as we emphasize words and meanings in our speech or movement by stressing something by making it earlier or later than its peers, or louder or softer, or part of a pattern that is somehow different than what one would normally expect, we also do that in music. But it is noticing a difference in relation to what is around it rather than something universal. We don't feel that a piece that is 60 beats a minute is somehow fast or slow because of our brains, we hear what is IN the piece and decide if the tempo is appropriate, too fast (dense) or too slow (not much happening). We want a certain amount of activity based on our human experience of reality. If there is a lot happening in the piece we perceive it as we would perceive an activity in real life with a lot of things happening and would feel similar emotions. But again, this is too technical.

I was also fascinated when he discussed the redundant structures in the nerves going from our ears to our brain. He talks about it having a part to play in our startle reflex. However, I also wonder if loud sounds don't cause strong enough pressure waves on our skin to cause those nerves to become involved as well and from there to the spinal column. But I don't know anything about this except from my own experience at being startled.

Just one of the many interesting observations the author makes concerns the role of talent in success. He describes a study done in which young people are rated by experts as to their talent in a given field. A longitudinal study is done and an analysis of who ended up successful shows that there is a factor much more powerful than native talent. The author points out that the most important factor in success is 10,000 hours of work in that field. This corresponds deeply to my own experience.

When young people ask me what they can do to learn to play the piano, I tell them to play five million notes. I don't care which ones. After the first million they will get bored of playing with their fists, knees, nose, or whatever and by the third million they will be taking it seriously. And I suppose it would take about 10,000 hours to play that many notes. I have also taught my children that talent is a multiplier of work. So a talent of 10 that multiplies a work effort of 1 loses out to a talent of 5 that multiplies a work effort of 100 and loses by a lot.

In any case, this is a fascinating book regardless of my slight disagreements and likely misunderstandings of what the author is saying. I am sure you will find a lot to enjoy and I recommend it with enthusiasm.

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