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Saturday, October 13th, 2007
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This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

by Daniel J. Levitin

Do You Hear What I Hear?

A review by Doug Brown

Music is ubiquitous in our society. Films and television shows always have musical soundtracks, music plays in stores and shopping centers, and when you go out to eat or drink music will almost surely be playing. Parades and football games have marching bands, and most indoor sporting events have music playing over loudspeakers. If not, the crowd will provide their own, as with songs sung by UK football fans, or the omnipresent stomp stomp CLAP of Queen's "We Will Rock You." We even accompany our wars with music, both as a way of rousing our troops and demoralizing everyone else's. But what is music? Why does it move us so? What does it have to do with memory or emotion or language? Was music a precursor or antecedent of language? Are we wired for it, or is it completely socially acquired? Those subjects and more are the focus of This Is Your Brain on Music.

Levitin points out that we are all musical experts. Even if we don't know the names of scales and modes, we can tell them apart. Regular people can identify out-of-tune notes just as well as professional musicians. The first section of This Is Your Brain on Music deals with defining what music is, and how it differs from generic noise. Melody, contour, and rhythm all get their just due. The middle section (the largest part of the book) deals with what parts of our brain are involved with what parts of analyzing music. This was for me the most fascinating part of the book; we know a lot more about brain function than when I took a course in neural mechanisms of behavior almost twenty years ago. One interesting philosophical point that Levitin raises concerns the old adage about a tree falling in a forest. Levitin argues that sound only exists inside our minds, as does color. Sure, out there in the world there are air molecules vibrating at different frequencies, and photons of different wavelengths of light. But the color blue is simply a quality our brains assign to light of particular wavelengths; there is nothing actually "blue" about electromagnetic radiation of 455-490 nm. Likewise, sound is a quality constructed in our minds; a way our brain interprets mechanical vibrations.

One curious omission in This Is Your Brain on Music is how music is actually stored in the brain. Much time is spent on memory in general, and some time devoted to where the brain stores music; but not how it remembers it. Bob Snyder's excellent but technical Music and Memory covers this well, a book not listed in Levitin's references. The interesting thing is that we store long-term memory in chunks of short-term memory: that is, chunks only around eight seconds long or less (so almost all musical phrases and song lines are shorter than this). Furthermore, the chunks are not stored chronologically in the brain. When recalling a piece of music, your brain has to string the bits together as best it can using melodic, rhyming, and other mnemonic cues. Thus, to remember a part of a song, you often need to remember how the intro starts, and then the first line, and then the second, etc. This is part of why we often make mistakes when remembering songs, like putting part of the second verse in the first verse (or getting to a point and not remembering where it goes from there). Perhaps Levitin will include this info in a later edition.

In the last chapter Levitin takes up arms against a comment made in a talk by Steven Pinker, wherein Pinker called music "auditory cheesecake." While I also disagree, Levitin's argument sometimes veers off course. He repeatedly argues that if music wasn't adaptive we wouldn't have it anymore, but that isn't how natural selection works. Selection only weeds out things that actively work against an organism's survival; characteristics and behaviors that are just along for the ride are largely left alone (like tonsils and appendixes). Thus, music's persistence is not necessarily evidence of positive adaptation. However, Levitin also covers well the more cogent response to Pinker's statement, which is the role music plays in social bonding and emotional communication. He soundly (no pun intended) shows that in this respect music is certainly adaptive, and more than just sweet notes.

Despite the omission of memory chunking, This Is Your Brain on Music is still a very interesting read, and recommended. I was going to say "recommended to anyone with an interest in music," but that's pretty much all of us. The sections of the book covering how our brains slice and dice musical information are written assuming the reader doesn't know much about neuroanatomy, so don't be concerned about this book being above you. The connections between how we process language and music are also touched on, though I would have preferred in more depth (but I would prefer a whole book on the subject, so that isn't really a complaint). For those who easily follow Levitin's overview and now want an upper division course, I recommend Snyder's Music and Memory as a follow-up. Put on some Beethoven or Blackmore, settle down in a comfortable chair, and remember what the dormouse said.*

*For you young pups who haven't learned the classics like Jefferson Airplane yet, the dormouse said, "Feed your head." And for you nitpickers who would point out that quote actually comes from Lewis Carroll, no, it doesn't. Grace Slick made it up.


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