This Is Your Brain on Music - Critical summary review - Daniel J. Levitin

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This Is Your Brain on Music - critical summary review

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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: 

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ISBN: 0525949690

Publisher: Plume Books

Critical summary review

What is music, and where does it come from? What makes some sequences of sound so pleasing to the ear, and what makes others so unpleasant and even distressing? How does our brain differentiate between the two and is this mechanism acquired through life, or innate and unalterable? What about music genres? How does our brain differentiate between them – and why? Why do we like certain categories of music and look down on others? 

These are only some of the questions Canadian neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explores and attempts to answer in his “endlessly stimulating” debut book, “This Is Your Brain on Music,” a required reading at Harvard University and the California Institute of Technology. Get ready to hear some of Levitin’s thoughts on each question and prepare to learn a little more about something you’ve loved ever since you can remember: music!

The antiquity and ubiquity of music

Common to all human cultures everywhere on the planet, music is considered an anthropological universal. No known human culture at any  point in recorded history has ever lacked music. In fact, some of the oldest physical artifacts ever discovered are musical instruments, such as bone flutes and animal skins stretched over tree stumps to make drums. Not only is it ancient, music is also ubiquitous, found both in communal rituals such as weddings and funerals and in intimate, personal moments such as prayers or mothers rocking their infants to sleep. 

Moreover, throughout most of human history, music seems to have been “as natural an activity as breathing and walking.” It was only in the Renaissance that a definite distinction arose between performers and listeners. Before that, music was something everyone participated in. Case in point, when anthropology professor Jim Ferguson told a group of Sotho villagers that he couldn’t sing and therefore couldn’t join in on one of their songs, the Sotho people found his objection quite baffling. To them, just as to most ancient cultures, singing was never an activity reserved for a special few, but “an ordinary, everyday activity performed by everyone, young and old, men and women.”

Today, however, we put a lot of emphasis on technique and skill, and not only do we differentiate between musical and non-musical individuals, but we also differentiate between good musicians and virtuosos. As a result, even though everybody loves music today, not many people seem to know a lot about it and even less bother learning the basics. Chances are you certainly know a fan of opera who can’t tell the difference between timbre and pitch, just as you probably know someone who can tell early Louis Armstrong from late just by the sound of the music, and without knowing the name of a single chord.

“It’s a shame that many people are intimidated by the jargon musicians, music theorists, and cognitive scientists throw around,” comments Levitin. Indeed, it is. After all, there is specialized vocabulary in every field of inquiry, but people seem better equipped to make sense of a full blood-analysis report from their doctors than to speak about what they like in the music of their favorite artists. According to Levitin, the problem is that, in the case of music, music experts and scientists don’t seem to do a good job of making their work accessible. So, before going any further, it’s time for a few definitions and a brief summary of the basic ideas in music theory.

What is music: a glossary

As defined by French-born composer Edgard Varèse in the first half of the 20th century, music is essentially “organized noise.” On the most basic level, that’s pretty much what distinguishes the music of Bach, Depeche Mode and Busta Rhymes from the collection of sounds you’d hear in a rainforest or standing in the middle of Times Square. Even so, encyclopedias add a few words more to Varèse’s definition and describe music as “the art of arranging sounds in time to produce a composition through the elements of melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre.” But what do those words mean? What about some even more fundamental building blocks of music such as pitch, tempo or contour? Well, allow us to explain them – and provide examples!

  • Pitch is purely a psychological construct, the degree of highness or lowness of a tone. Pitch is also the only thing that varies in the first seven notes of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
  • Tone is a vocal or musical sound of a specific quality. Tone is what you hear when a trumpet player blows in his instrument and makes a single sound.
  • Note is essentially synonymous with tone, but scientists usually reserve the word “tone” for what we hear, and the word “note” for what we see written on a musical score.
  • Rhythm “refers to the duration of a series of notes, and to the way that they group together into units.” For example, in the “Alphabet Song,” the first six notes (and letters) are all equal in duration, but then we hold the letter G for twice the duration of the previous six letters. After H, I, J, K, we sing the following four letters (L, M, N, and O) with half of the standard duration. 
  • Meter refers to the way our brain groups and arranges the information extracted from rhythm and loudness. For example, our brain organizes the tones of a waltz into groups of three, and the tones of a march into groups of two or four. 
  • Tempo refers to the overall speed or pace of the piece. It reflects how fast or slow one would need to tap their foot or dance to a certain piece of music.
  • Timber is what distinguishes one instrument from another when both are playing the same written note. C-sharp, for example, doesn’t sound identical when played by a trumpet and a piano, even though it’s the same note. That’s why timber is sometimes confused with tone.
  • Melody is “the main theme of a musical piece, the part you sing along with, the succession of tones that are most salient in your mind.” The overall shape of a melody (that is, whether it goes up or down) is called contour.
  • Harmony refers to the relationships between the pitches of different tones. It can mean simply a parallel melody to the primary one (when singers harmonize) or it can refer to a chord progression – “the clusters of notes that form a context and background on which the melody rests.”

Music and the mind machine

As you can see, many of the effects music creates are more perceptual than factual. That is, they have a lot to do with how our brain interprets what it hears rather than what it actually hears. For example, whereas frequency – the number of times a tone appears in time – is an objective physical property of sound, pitch is a psychoacoustic phenomenon, in that what we think we hear might not be the real, particular frequency of the sound under consideration. This brings us to the next question – namely, what happens behind the curtain or, rather, how are sounds and music processed by what Levitin terms our “mind machine”? 

“Listening to music,” he explains, “starts with subcortical (below-the-cortex) structures – the cochlear nuclei, the brain stem, the cerebellum – and then moves up to auditory cortices on both sides of the brain.” If you already know the music you’re listening to and you’re trying to follow along with it, then additional regions of the brain (such as the hippocampus, our memory center) are recruited. Tapping along with music involves the timing circuits of the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for coordinating voluntary movements. Performing music employs this part even more, as it does the frontal lobes and the motor cortex. Reading music involves the visual cortex, and recalling lyrics invokes the language centers of the brain.

All in all, music is processed by pretty much every part of our brain. Moreover, these parts aren’t activated in succession, but concurrently, which makes studying our response to music rather difficult. To make matters even more complicated, our response often includes emotions which involve structures located deep in our amygdala, some of them as old as our species. This shows just how primal an experience listening to music is and why it sometimes feels so mysteriously religious and religiously sacred. Indeed, there are many studies that suggest this connection should be inverted and that, in fact, some things, such as prayers, may seem sacred to us because of the harmoniously arranged musical elements they incorporate, and not the other way around. But that’s a topic for a different article. For ours, let’s delve a little deeper inside the mind machine and discover what it is that we actually like in the music that we enjoy.

Anticipation and appreciation

In his early short story “Ligeia,” famous American writer Edgar Allan Poe remarked, “There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.” Modern neuroscience has proved Poe’s intuitive observation quite accurate. All beauty seems to be a carefully organized dance between the predictable and the unexpected, and musical beauty is no exception. In other words, whereas music, as generally defined, is organized sound, good music necessarily includes some strangeness, an element of the unanticipated and unforeseen. 

“The appreciation we have for music is intimately related to our ability to learn the underlying structure of the music we like […] and to be able to make predictions about what will come next,” explains Levitin. “Composers imbue music with emotion by knowing what our expectations are and then very deliberately controlling when those expectations will be met, and when they won’t. The thrills, chills, and tears we experience from music are the result of having our expectations artfully manipulated by a skilled composer and the musicians who interpret that music.”

These manipulations can occur at any level of the musical composition. Consider the following few examples. The ideas of most rock and pop songs are organized into four- or eight-measure phrases. However, the main melodic phrase of one of the most famous rock songs in history, the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” is seven measures long; the missing measure leaves us wanting for more. Just as well, the hypnotic sound people enjoy in the songs of The Police is the product of intentional violation of rhythmic expectations. Essentially, most of the songs by The Police are rock songs played in a typical reggae rhythm, which gives them a “half-time” feel, a sort of “lazy quality.” 

In “Roxanne,” The Police perform another musical trick. In that song, Sting, the band’s lead singer, leaps up an interval of roughly a half octave to hit the first syllable of the name “Roxanne” before coming down again to fill the gap. An even more famous leap occurs in “Over the Rainbow,” the melody of which begins with one of the largest leaps one can experience in music – a full octave. “This is a strong schematic violation,” explains Levitin, “and so the composer rewards and soothes us by bringing the melody back toward home again, but not by too much – he does come down, but only by one scale degree – because he wants to continue to build tension. The third note of this melody fills the gap.”

Music, memory and music genres

As music researcher Perry Cook once remarked, musicians are – and in most senses of the word – magicians. Put simply, their job is to persistently set up expectations in their audience only so they have something to challenge and defy. The defiance happens without the audience knowing exactly how or when it is going to happen, and this is what tricks the brain into elegant submission. Listening to good music essentially means being taken to a dark wood for a walk and then taken back to a peaceful, recognizable abode again. Rather than being scary, the unexpected becomes an adventure in the presence of a knowledgeable guide who brings you back home. That’s what composers are – expert guides through terrains that combine the already known with the bewildering. 

The lesson here is twofold. First of all, you can’t enjoy music that’s entirely new to you. That is to say, the only way to identify the unexpected is if you have something to compare it to. If you don’t, then everything is unexpected and that generates neither a sense of beauty nor feelings of pleasure, but only puzzlement at best. That’s why many people have problems enjoying classical music: simply put, they aren’t knowledgeable enough to understand what’s going on behind the curtain. In other words, their mind cannot interpret the information it receives in sufficiently meaningful ways. 

The reason why in past centuries, more people enjoyed classical music than today was that they knew more about it. Not because they had classes about it at school, but because classical music was all-pervasive in the 17th and 18th century, so intuitively, they could acquire its melodies and rhythms. Analogously, most people today don’t know anything about the anticipations pop music creates and defies, but still enjoy some pop songs better than others. This is because pop music is ubiquitous in the 21st century, and because our minds are constantly gathering and interpreting its patterns. As a rule of thumb, the more you listen to a certain genre of music, the more you’ll enjoy it.

The second part of this lesson is even more interesting. Namely, the mechanism our brains use to appreciate music implies that music and memory are intricately linked. Indeed, as Levitin writes, “Memory affects the music-listening experience so profoundly that it would not be hyperbole to say that without memory there would be no music.” Music, in other words, can only work if we have something to compare it to. That is to say, if we can remember the tones we have just heard and are able to relate them to the ones that are about to be played. The amygdala doesn’t activate to random collections of sounds, but to sounds that form recognizable patterns. Memory makes patterns possible and repetition, when combined with elements of the unexpected, produces emotional satisfaction.

Music, the auditory cheesecake

In architecture, spandrel is the (usually ornamented) space between two arches. The space is there not because it was planned-for, but because any plan to build a dome held up by two arches would necessarily produce space between them. In 1979, noted evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould borrowed the term to describe traits and behaviors in animals that, rather than having a clear evolutionary purpose, are by-products of adaptation. For example, birds originally evolved feathers to keep themselves warm; much later, they coopted the feathers for flying. Flying is a spandrel.

According to cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, so is music in humans. In a 1997 keynote lecture at MIT, Pinker famously described music as “an auditory cheesecake,” that is to say, as the delightful dessert of the main dish that is language. “Language is clearly an evolutionary adaptation,” Pinker said then. “Music just happens to tickle several important parts of the brain in a highly pleasurable way.” To the properly initiated, this controversial claim by Pinker couldn’t have come as a surprise. That is because just three years before, in his 1994 book “The Language Instinct,” he had remarked something even more damning. “As far as biological cause and effect are concerned,” he wrote there, “music is useless.”

Pinker isn’t alone in this belief. Psychologist Dan Sperber once called music “an evolutionary parasite,” and cosmologist John Barrow has repeatedly claimed that music exists simply because of the pleasure it affords and that its basis is purely hedonic. Many, however, would beg to differ. Levitin is among them. So was the man behind the very idea of evolution, Mr. Charles Darwin himself. Not only Darwin thought that music played an important role in sexual selection, but he also believed that music preceded speech as a means of courtship, likening it with the peacock’s tail. This analogy deserves a more detailed explanation, not only because it is interesting in itself, but also because it can explain why many women consider male musicians attractive – even when they aren’t by the usual standards.

Music, evolution’s No. 1 hit

In itself, a peacock’s tail serves no survival advantage; in fact, it’s quite a liability because it requires a lot of resources and makes it harder to escape from predators. Even so, the peahens somehow love it. Why? Quite tautologically, precisely because it is a handicap. Otherwise put, a peacock’s tail signals that the individual carrying it around is fit enough to carry it or, in other words, that he has so much energy and resources that he can afford to squander a lot of them on an impressive tail, one quite visible to predators. The message that the peacock’s tail sends to the peahens is clear: “Choose me, milady, because I am so full of energy and so skillful that I have survived despite this obvious and impressive handicap.”

For cognitive psychologist Geoffrey Miller, music making has played a similar evolutionary role in the lives of humans – and, moreover, it continues to play today. Because music involves “an array of physical and mental skills,” it is an overt display of health, intelligence and energy, signaling that the person who has had time to develop their musicianship – and, moreover, possesses the fitness to endure concert after concert – has, in fact, resource wealth of all sorts. That music making is an important factor in sexual selection is further backed by the fact that interest in music peaks during adolescence. “Music evolved and continues to function as a courtship display,” concludes Miller, “mostly broadcast by young males to attract females.”

Miller’s hypothesis doesn’t just explain the hundreds of groupies Jimi Hendrix or Elvis Presley had sexual liaisons with, but also why physical appearance doesn’t seem to be an issue for top rock stars, such as Mick Jagger. Simply put, music making is an indicator of sexual fitness in itself. Owning a Cadillac or a million-dollar villa works in pretty much the similar way as music-making, but there’s a big difference between the two. As Miller suggests, whereas wealth is a compelling attractor to females because it predicts who might make a good dad (for child-rearing), music and creativity predict even better who will furnish the best genes (for child fathering). 

That’s why far more women want to sleep with rock stars than marry them. They instinctively know that “the best fathers (in the biological sense) don’t always make the best dads (for child-rearing).” Almost all studies done on the subject have demonstrated that the majority of women prefer creative but poor artists to not-so-creative but rich individuals when they are at their peak fertility – and at no other time than that. This may explain why in a recent European study 1 in 10 mothers reported that their children were raised by men who falsely believed the children were their own. To exaggerate a bit, they slept with the rock star but married the economist, thereby getting the best of both worlds.

Final notes

“This Is Your Brain on Music” was named one of the best books of 2007 by many prominent publications, including “The Guardian,” “The Independent” and “The Globe and Mail.” Moreover, the book also received praise from many prominent scientists and musicians, such as Oliver Sacks, Francis Crick, Brian Greene, Pete Townshend, David Byrne and Yoko Ono.

Quite deservedly, since it is indeed a fascinating and thought-provoking book, especially for beginners and nonspecialists. No wonder it became required reading in the Freshman Core Program in General Education at Harvard University. Since 2012, it’s also been a textbook at the Physics Department at the California Institute of Technology. Highly recommended.

12min tip

If you can’t enjoy a certain music genre, don’t dismiss it – at least not before exploring it. Almost by design, we can’t appreciate music we know little about.

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Who wrote the book?

Daniel J. Levitin is a psychology professor, neuroscientist, writer, musician, and record producer. He also founded Arts & Humanities at the Minerva Schools at Keck Graduate Institute in California. He is the author of several bestsellers, including ‘’This Is Your Brain on Music,’’ ‘’The World in Six Songs,’’... (Read more)

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