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Book Commentary/Review – This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin April 10, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, Daniel Levitin, music, This Is Your Brain on Music, Uncategorized.
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(This is the second of what will be a series of commentaries about those books a series of seven or so books about the nature of music. The first commentary of this series was about the book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, This series has been triggered as a result of  my rediscovery of the love of creating and performing music. There is definitely a spiritual connection to this rediscovery, evidenced by my recent release of “Issa Music” and my posts about mystical/spiritual aspects of the music of the progressive rock group Yes (The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”  and The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes). This further relates to spiritual meditations with the theme of more than one path to God, and the possible coming together of both physics and metaphysics I and II).

Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music brings readers a layman’s state-of-information look at how music affects the human brain physiologically. Levitin’s background as a professional musician (performer and producer) and scientist (neuroscientist) places him in a position to understand music and brain function intimately, from deep inside these diverse disciplines. Levitin draws on a broad knowledge of music, from “classical” to pop, and from his knowledge of experiments at the frontiers of brain research to bring readers this information.

Levitin starts us with a solid practical discussion of what music is. Intellectuals have played with the boundaries of this definition. But Levitin stays away from some of the overly broad definitional ideas offered by 20th Century theorists that could render a discussion of these issues impossible. He also goes into aspects of music that appear to be inherent in music no matter where it is played. The octave pervades music everywhere. This is undoubtedly universal, dictated by the physics of acoustics. (If we played an octave for an intelligent extraterrestrial with musical capabilities, it would likely be understood the way we understand it. If we encounter extraterrestrials, math and music could be the starting points for communication.) He also looks at interval ratios, showing that the simpler ratios of a bisected vibrating string are more likely to lead to a consonant interval. Rhythm also factors in, and Levitin thoroughly discusses how rhythms and accents drive music. He also discusses volume/loudness; how it can be measured and its potential effects.

After laying the groundwork of music basics, Levitin goes into specifics about how humans respond to music, based on cutting edge scientific experiments and studies.

  • He maps the specific places in the brain responsible for sensing rhythm, emotional reactions to music, playing instruments and dancing (among other musical activities).
  • We learn that the brain creates structure in our world and that music is a sophisticated way of ordering a sequence of sounds. He admits that the emotional power of music, of this brain mechanism for organizing sounds, is still a mystery. But the methods used by the brain to process and organize sounds are more and more clearly understood.
  • He goes into how our brains have a facility for remembering music, and how we can transpose that memory to recognize a new version of a musical passage.  “…without memory, there would be no music.”
  • He spends time discussing what makes an expert musician. He points out is it is only very recently that human beings became divided into expert musicians and spectators. Music has, in humanity’s hunter-gatherer formative past, been a group activity. It may well be more natural for people to participate in music than to sit quietly and watch it.
  • He discusses dissonance and consonance, how different people tolerate different levels of dissonance, and how consonance and dissonance are processed “via separate mechanisms in the auditory cortex.”
  • In the chapter “The Music Instinct,” Levitin goes through possible evolutionary advantages music might have conferred on humans:
    • An increase of sexual attractiveness for those with musical skills. (But this begs the question of why musical skills would be valued by a potential sexual partner.)
    • Music brings humans together, contributing to social bonding and cohesion, favoring those humans who band together. Humans are social creatures; an aptitude for the social activity of music may have favored early humans.
    • Musical activity—making music, learning music, listening to music—promoted cognitive development including speech. The rhythm of music is wired into us—a mother rocking her child to sleep with a lullaby appears to be “culturally universal.”
    • He mentions birds and other musical creatures, but cautions us not to attribute to humans the same motives as animals. They may experience music completely differently—it may not even sound the same to them. Sexual selection, alerts to fellow creatures, and territory are among animal uses for what we might call music.
    • As much as I love this book, and learned a lot from it, I could not help but notice a huge omission from possible evolutionary adaptions—the religious/spiritual/mystical role of music, possibly present in humanity from almost our beginnings. This is identified in Oliver Sacks book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, as a possibility. I do understand that science does not seek to become tangled in issues of religion. But we mustn’t become so scientifically tunnel-visioned that we go out of our way to exclude religion/spirituality as a possible explanation!  Yes, I admit my bias in this area. I’m looking for possible connections between physics and metaphysics, and wondering if music offers humans a connection through the mind to something beyond the material world. I do not ask scientists to join me on this journey. But my reading indicates that hunter-gathering societies used music, with all those basic elements Levitin talks about—rhythm, singing melodies, communal performance—to communicate to with the God force, to access their conception of God. Could the effort to sense God, to communicate with the God force, to access the perceived spiritual world—could that effort confer some form of evolutionary advantage? Of course, the sexual aspect as pointed out by Levitin is present—now and probably in the past. But the spiritual angle may well mix into this, and offer additional understanding of the connection of human beings to music.

This Is Your Brain on Music, largely because of Daniel Levitin’s unique expertise in diverse disciplines, is a must read for anyone trying to understand how precisely music affects human beings at the basic neurological and biochemical level. His wealth of musical examples cut across many music preferences, and anyone reading this book will certainly find applicable examples even if not familiar with all musical examples cited. And is quite clear Levitin has mastery over both of these subjects, a mastery required to make this such an effective book.


1. Daily Decibel - April 10, 2012

Music is intertwined with the spiritual. The spiritual cannot exist without God. The existence of God and the Darwinian theory of macroevolution are mutually exclusive.

2. Daily Decibel - April 11, 2012

Just to clarify, I believe in Intelligent Design. I don’t believe in the secular Darwinian theory of macroevolution, because I believe it is an illogical and faulty theory, a theory based on the random and not on the orderly. I recognize spiritual aspects of music, which could exist without God. For instance, the music of J.S. Bach is so peaceful and so extraordinarily spiritual — in a positive sense — because it was (is) focused on God.

I found Levitin’s “This is Your Brain on Music” to be lacking in certain areas. He doesn’t devote much time (less than a page, actually) to the neuroscience involving what he has described as an “earworm”; that is, a continual presence of, for example, a song phrase or melody in the mind of the listener.

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