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Monday, October 6, 2008

Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

Music communicates to us emotionally through systematic violations of expectations. These violations can occur in any domain - the domain of pitch, timbre, contour, rhythm tempo, and so on - but occur they must. Music is organized sound, but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic. Too much organization may technically still be music, but it would be music that no one wants to listen to. Scales, for example, are organized, but most parents get sick of hearing their children play them after five minutes.

-Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music

This is Your Brain on Music
by Daniel Levitin was recommended to me by a reader after I wrote one of my most popular articles, The Importance of Music to Humankind. I recently finished the book and I decided to share my thoughts on it with you.

Daniel Levitin is a record producer turned neuroscientist, driven by a great curiosity and passion for the world of music. He knows many famous people in both the music industry (such as the Grateful Dead) and the field of human biology (like Francis Crick). Because of all this I consider him to be a great asset to the world, as he helps us a get a little bit closer to understanding why music is a part of us.

What about the book though? He starts off with telling us about each of the basic components of music, like rhythm, melody and so on. Even if you already know music theory it's presented in such a unique way, from the angle of a scientist, that it is still compelling to read. He tells us what parts of the brain are at work for each aspect of music, and what it might tell us about ourselves.

He goes on to discuss how music manipulates our emotions, how hours of practice, rather than talent, makes good musicians (score one for makeshift musicians!), and how culture and evolution both affect our music in different ways.

One problem that I had with this book was that Levitin wanders a lot in the course of each chapter. He breaks the well-established convention of letting the reader know where the author is going with a particular tangent. He'll start a topic, then veer off with some anecdotal story without telling the reader how it ties in to his point, sometimes for several pages, until he's done. Occasionally he won't even bother tying it in at all. This makes it a somewhat more difficult read than it should be, but the information is so fascinating that I didn't mind too much.

Every musician will benefit greatly from reading this book. It will help you understand what it is you are doing when you write and perform music. Levitin's insight will give you focus on your purpose as a musician, and the powerful and strange things that happen to your consciousness when you listen to music will seem just a little less ethereal.

Most Interesting Piece of Information:
The fact that inside your brain is an honest-to-god synthesizer. It's so complete that if you were to wire up that particular part of your brain to a speaker, you could produce simple tones just by thinking about them. We don't actually do this because poking wires into a human brain is generally considered to be a bad idea. We're not entirely sure how this evolved.


Dyne said...

You know, it's rather funny, I saw this book at both Borders and Barnes & Noble, and I thought about picking it up, but didn't because at the time, I wasn't interested.

However, I think now I will pick it up. It sounds interesting, no matter the difficulty, and I'd like to know more myself. Might give me an insight that would be worthwhile and helpful.

Dyne said...

Hey, you might like this, I was just browsing the link you put up to Amazon for the book you were just talking about (This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin), and found another of his books, published two months ago.

Here's the link:

Looks fascinating.

Ben said...

Very cool. I'll totally check that out. Thanks.