Tuesday, August 21, 2007

This Is Your Brain On Music - Book Review

Daniel Levitin is not afraid to tackle the big questions: How are our musical preferences established? How can hearing an old song bring back such strong memories (not all of them pleasant)? What makes musicians different from "normal" people? Why does it take 10,000 hours of practice to master a musical instrument? Why is it so difficult to categorize some music (and musicians)? Why will some of the most annoying advertising jingles get stuck in your brain, playing over and over again? Will Mozart’s music make my child smarter? Will listening to Wagner turn me into an anti-Semite?

All this (and more!) awaits the reader of Daniel Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music. Subtitled The Science of a Human Obsession, this is an engagingly written introduction to the neuroscience of music, "the science of music from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience," as Levitin puts it. The author describes how music "affects our brains, our minds, our thoughts, and our spirit." Unavoidably, understanding the neural basis for music appreciation eventually gets into mapping the brain and the proximity of the amygdala to the hippocampus or the relationship of the primitive cerebellum with the more recently evolved frontal lobes.

But Levitin’s narrative ranges from biology and human anatomy to chemistry, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and computer science with a bit of cultural and evolutionary history tossed in for good measure. In the process, the reader is given a definitive answer to George Berkeley’s zen koan about whether a falling tree makes a noise if there is no one present to hear it. All this is accomplished with an array of references to Ani DiFranco, Buddy Holly, Pink Floyd, Django Reinhardt, Charles Mingus, Joni Mitchell, and Queen (!), among hundreds of others.

Levitin clearly has the bona fides to write this book: he is a musician (he played sax for Mel Torme and had his own punk band, the Mortals); he was a producer (Blue Oyster Cult, Chris Isaak) and anthologist (Steely Dan, Santana, Stevie Wonder); and he is a tenured academician (with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, Levitin is currently a cognitive psychologist with McGill University in Montreal).

The geek factor is pretty high, and occasionally the book becomes a slow-going read. But, to his credit, Levitin neither oversimplifies his subject nor talks down to his readers, which makes reading this book worth the occasional effort it requires. Humanities majors needn’t worry, because the beautiful mystery of music remains intact despite Levitin’s well-grounded, rational, scientific approach to his subject matter.

Levitin offers up some convincing conjecture about how music originated and why it’s important, rebuffing the scientific fold that considers it "an evolutionary parasite" because it "plays no role in the survival of the species." Even Levitin’s erudition, however, won’t resolve some debates. (Beatles or Stones? East Coast or West Coast? SRV or EC?) And, of course, even the best minds of modern science can’t answer some questions. (How on Earth did Milli Vanilli and the Spice Girls manage to sell so many albums?)

--by Shelby Meyer (KXCI Member and Volunteer)

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