Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Book Review: This Is Your Brain On Music - The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin

A book that analyzes how our brains process, listen to, remember, and interpret music runs the risk of being the equivalent of explaining a joke. It’s not entirely helpful or illuminating to understand why someone considers a joke hilarious or abysmally lousy (the wife pig is upset because her husband and two children have turned their home into a total mess. In fact, it’s a sty. See, it’s not funny because it’s a lame joke because…). We instinctively either have a reaction to it; an analysis of why it’s funny or not misses the point.

Similarly, music listeners have a gut reaction to music; it moves us, depresses us, inspires us, makes us want to raise our arms in the air and wave them like we just don’t care, or in the case of Panic At The Disco, causes us to flee in terror, jump the barricades, and bunker down in anticipation of the apocalypse.

Despite these potential pitfalls, Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession is a fascinating study about what happens in the brain when we listen to music, and doesn’t turn the subject into a boring scientific exercise. Levitin, a neuroscientist and former session musician and producer, has crafted an excellent study that both scientists with tons of initials after their names and lay readers whose grasp of science starts and ends with CSI or Forensic Files will find informative. Perhaps best of all, Levitin’s book doesn’t ruin the enjoyment of listening to music.

Levitin primarily takes a thematic approach in examining how the brain functions when listening to music. Although the first chapter, which explains the basics of music like pitch, timbre, meter, and all the other things your elementary school music teacher taught you against your will, is somewhat dry and boring, the remaining chapters are enlightening. With topics including how the brain remembers and recalls music, why music can impact our moods, and why musical preferences can vary from person to person, Levitin explains the processes occurring in the brain without overwhelming the reader with overly-technical and academically-dry details. It’s actually more of a page-turner than some of the best-selling thrillers that find their way onto airplanes and beaches every summer.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the final one, which makes a case for the evolutionary origins of music, arguing against scientists who believe music was a happy accident or an unplanned byproduct of language development (you know, like Vin Diesel). Levitin shows how music may have played a role in human survival and evolution, including aiding in cognitive development, serving as a key factor in promoting early human interactions, and giving musical males an extra advantage in the grand reproductive race. This last part is pretty discouraging for us non-musicians; even in ancient times, any fugly dude with an instrument would apparently be more desirable than non-musicians to females.

Written for non-experts who might not know the difference between a hippocampus and a hippopotamus, This Is Your Brain On Music successfully manages to explain how we listen to music without reducing music to a series of neurons and brain waves. Levitin writes in an intelligent but not overbearing or condescending tone; his passion for music is apparent throughout the book. An excellent integration of science and music, Levitin’s book examines the brain’s role in listening to and processing music without downplaying any of the emotions we experience when listening to music.

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