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Original Essays

This Is Your Brain on Powell's: Reflections on a Great Bookstore and on Music

by Daniel Levitin
  1. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
    $11.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Before he became a neuroscientist, Daniel J. Levitin was a music producer and professional musician. This Is Your Brain on Music connects those two worlds, of music production and reception, with ear-opening results." Recommended by Dave, Powells.com
In my new book, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, I try to make accessible the newest research on the connection between music — its performance, its composition, how we listen to it, why we enjoy it — and the human brain. The basis for my book actually has a local angle of sorts: I received my doctoral training just down the road from Powell's, in Eugene, and I made frequent trips up I-5 to browse their books back in the days before Internet purchasing was an option. But even today, I would make that drive at least once a month, for two reasons.

The first is that I love browsing. Holding a book in my hand, thumbing through the pages gives me a physical, almost sensual pleasure... having the paper against my skin, the weight of the book, the smell, are things that I can't get from e-books or from using my computer's browser. And many of my favorite books — books that changed my life in some way — are books that I encountered serendipitously, by bumping up against them in a bookstore or library while looking for something else.

The second reason is that my car is my favorite place to listen to music. When I got my driver's license at sixteen, I discovered that there was no more pleasant or absorbing an environment than the inside of my car. Whether in my 1967 Sunbeam Alpine convertible that was always falling apart, my 1964 Dodge Dart with the pushbutton transmission, my 1957 Chevrolet Apache, or my 1973 VW Beetle, music always sounded better — more urgent, more energizing — with the highway racing by below my feet. I learned years later that many great record producers leave their million dollar studios and listen to their latest mixes in their cars. When I worked with Carlos Santana in the '80s, he did just that.

A speaker designer friend once told me why the car is such a great place to listen to music: with speakers mounted in the doors, the entire car acts as a resonant chamber. It's as though you are inside a giant speaker cabinet rather than a living room (or studio) with the speakers pointing at you; the car becomes the speaker cabinet and it is all around you.

Music is all around us in another sense, of course. Music is there for major events in our lives: at weddings, often during birth, mothers singing to their infants, soldiers marching off to war, funerals, political rallies, parades and carnivals, romantic dinners. Music has also been with our species as long as anything else we have evidence for, perhaps even longer than language. And music is ubiquitous across societies — no known culture, present or past, lacks music. In This Is Your Brain on Music, I ask why music evolved in humans, and how it affects our brains.

Many people are reluctant to probe too deeply into music, afraid that if they understand it too well it will lose its mystery and thus its power. So far this hasn't happened to anyone I know. The mystery of music is so complex — so profound, even — that we will never truly understand it. For each new question I've been able to answer in the science of music, either through my own research or that of colleagues, I've found three new questions waiting for me, each more interesting than the last. Tori Amos and others have called music "the language of the universe." It is certainly the language of human emotion, and understanding music's role in our lives can ultimately help us to better understand our brains, and the evolution of our species.

But why do we like some pieces of music and not others — why is one man's Mozart another man's Madonna? To begin with, our musical tastes start to form in the womb. By twenty-four weeks, the human fetus has a completely functioning auditory system and is able to hear music through the amniotic fluid (it sounds something like listening underwater). One-year-olds show clear preferences for music that they heard in the womb. Until roughly the age of eight, the developing child is absorbing whatever music she hears, during a time when the brain is working hard to make billions of new connections. Just as we have found that there are "critical periods" for language acquisition, there appear to be critical periods for the acquisition of music listening. As the child hears the music of his culture, he develops neural systems — schemas — to capture the structural and tonal regularities of that music. Beginning around the age of ten, as the brain's mission shifts toward pruning out unused neural connections, musical tastes become somewhat focused around the music we're used to. Around the age of twelve, music begins to serve a social bonding function and we use music to distinguish our social group from others: this is the kind of music people like us listen to, that music is for them. As young teens, our musical tastes are further refined by what our friends are listening to. Most of us base our adult musical tastes on what we liked when we were twelve to sixteen. In some cases, through effort, we can expand our musical tastes as adults. But if we had relatively narrow tastes in our developing years, this is more difficult to do because we lack the appropriate schemas, or templates, with which to process and ultimately to understand new musical forms.

A lack of early music exposure doesn't mean you won't develop a broad palette of musical tastes in later life, just like a lack of learning a second language early in life doesn't mean you'll never be able to master French as an adult. But both will require a greater effort and conscious act of will to achieve. Those of us who were lucky to have exposure to a wide variety of musical styles as children — the jazz featured in Merrie Melodies cartoons, the classical music of Peter and the Wolf or The Nutcracker ballet, not to mention the rock, country, and pop we can hear in shopping malls and on music television — have brains that are "wired up" to respond to a range of musical genres.

Now when I drive, I bring my iPod, put it in shuffle mode, and take whatever my own personal radio station dishes out. The beauty of the iPod (or other personal music players) is just that: we can load them with our favorite music and hear only things we know we like. This of course is also a potential limiting factor: if we don't go out of our way to add new music once in a while, just to try it out, we'll become frozen in our musical tastes.

If I were driving up I-5 today I'd be listening to Van Morrison's Too Long in Exile, Miles Davis's "Freddie Freeloader," a new old album I just bought but still haven't heard, Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend, and a few cuts that friends recommended but that I've never heard and that I hope will come on when I least expect them. And when I got to Powell's, I'd want to check out Haruki Murakami's Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Jay Weinstein's The Ethical Gourmet, Mini Grey's The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon, of course Geoff Emerick's Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles and anything else I might accidentally bump into, knock over, or stumble onto while looking for them. spacer

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