This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

Whether you load your iPod with Bach or Bono, music has a significant role in your life—even if you never realized it. Why does music evoke such powerful moods? The answers are at last be- coming clear, thanks to revolutionary neuroscience and the emerging field of evolutionary psychology. Both a cutting-edge study and a tribute to the beauty of music itself, This Is Your...

Title:This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
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Edition Language:English

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession Reviews

  • Matthew

    There's a lot of amazing stuff in this book to contemplate, but the author tries too hard to make it relevant for readers who listen to the Eagles and Mariah Carey (musicians he specifically sites), and he gets caught up in the most mundane details of his personal interactions with his colleagues at meetings and dinners and such, and who ordered what, and how everybody was dressed, and where everybody got their degrees.

    My girlfriend got me interested in it because I found her passionate explanat

    There's a lot of amazing stuff in this book to contemplate, but the author tries too hard to make it relevant for readers who listen to the Eagles and Mariah Carey (musicians he specifically sites), and he gets caught up in the most mundane details of his personal interactions with his colleagues at meetings and dinners and such, and who ordered what, and how everybody was dressed, and where everybody got their degrees.

    My girlfriend got me interested in it because I found her passionate explanations of the salient neuroscience very interesting, but that information could be contained in a book about a quarter of the length of this one. Read it, because you don't have Stacey to give you the short version, and you'll love learning about how deeply and profoundly music affects human and animal brains, but do yourself a favor and skip a few paragraphs every time Levitin starts to ramble on with his personal anecdotes which usually pertain only very tangentially to the science at hand.

  • Mike Bularz

    From the reviews I've seen here, the material seems to have passed over most people's heads (by being too rough, or the phrase you'll come across a few times, "I didn't feel like I walked away exclaiming 'eureka!'"... or the book angered more expert readers by its simplicity, but it wasn't meant to talk of new discoveries as much as it was meant for a general public.

    The book takes a while for an average person, and I'd say you have to have some knowledge of chorded instruments and such where yo

    From the reviews I've seen here, the material seems to have passed over most people's heads (by being too rough, or the phrase you'll come across a few times, "I didn't feel like I walked away exclaiming 'eureka!'"... or the book angered more expert readers by its simplicity, but it wasn't meant to talk of new discoveries as much as it was meant for a general public.

    The book takes a while for an average person, and I'd say you have to have some knowledge of chorded instruments and such where you'd come across ideas such as frequencies ringing together to form major and minor chords. It covers various interesting topics, and I speculate the reason people walk away feeling not so enlightened is because after chapter 8+, chapters 1-5 are a distant memory. If you have trouble, jot down a few things, it helped me.

    There is one chapter that the author wastes time talking about a dinner with his idol neuro-scientists from which you will take not much away except for a list of forgettable names and how the next chapter's ideas were spurred by one of the professors' advice: "Look at the connections [something along those lines at least]".

    Overall, Im glad I read this book, and often check back to it as a reference, and it's great food for thought.

  • Ken

    This is one of those books that I think is a valuable read but not necessarily an enjoyable one..at least for the general reader. If you bring a background in neuroscience then this is a treasure chest of information. My personal interest lies in music specifically and I saw this as an opportunity to better understand how our brains engage with music. Coupled with Oliver Sacks collection "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" we begin to unlock the mysterious properties of music to help us com

    This is one of those books that I think is a valuable read but not necessarily an enjoyable one..at least for the general reader. If you bring a background in neuroscience then this is a treasure chest of information. My personal interest lies in music specifically and I saw this as an opportunity to better understand how our brains engage with music. Coupled with Oliver Sacks collection "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" we begin to unlock the mysterious properties of music to help us communicate/learn even when burdened with serious psychological disorders. Fascinating stuff. Levitin frequently lightens a very technical discussion with references to pop/jazz music but overall his analysis is complex and difficult to present in an easily readable format. It seems evident to me after reading both books that there is still much to be learned about the human brain, but music has a unique power to shape cultures and our minds in a way that other art forms cannot. Many of Levithans chapters are worth reading by themselves. For example, I found his writing on "What Makes a Musician" and why we are drawn to certain types of music (and remember certain songs) especially interesting.

  • Pamela W

    I really despise myself for giving what should be an awesome book only 2 stars. I know I am mentally feeble, but was this ever dry!!! Interesting topic - neuroscience & music - but the author did go on at times (too much music theory, god I hated studying that and I'm a musician) and took the scientific aspects to a degree where I often found myself stopping to ponder "what the hell is he talking about?" It read like it could be someone's dissertation. The second half is slightly more intere

    I really despise myself for giving what should be an awesome book only 2 stars. I know I am mentally feeble, but was this ever dry!!! Interesting topic - neuroscience & music - but the author did go on at times (too much music theory, god I hated studying that and I'm a musician) and took the scientific aspects to a degree where I often found myself stopping to ponder "what the hell is he talking about?" It read like it could be someone's dissertation. The second half is slightly more interesting. I'm sure Oliver Sacks book re: dysfunctional psychological reactions/processing of music is going to be a more fun and interesting read, and let's face it, I am reading for fun, this is not a textbook for my evening class at The School of Rock. When I get to invite 4 people from history to a dinner party, I'll not invite Daniel Levitin; all the other guests will try to avoid him all night as he does go on and on (much like this review).

  • Sam

    Seemingly for musicians or composers this book is more fitting a read for scientists and doctors. Not much content is musicianship related. Middle third is a bore.

    What I learned:

    - There is no sound in space

    (there are no molecules to vibrate)

    - Virtuosity comes from hours of practice

    (talent and absolute pitch play a small role)

    - Learning to play an instrument after 20 is hard

    (the brain is done developing)

    - Percussion is a primitive musical trait

    (affirming my suspician drummers are apes)

    - People

    Seemingly for musicians or composers this book is more fitting a read for scientists and doctors. Not much content is musicianship related. Middle third is a bore.

    What I learned:

    - There is no sound in space

    (there are no molecules to vibrate)

    - Virtuosity comes from hours of practice

    (talent and absolute pitch play a small role)

    - Learning to play an instrument after 20 is hard

    (the brain is done developing)

    - Percussion is a primitive musical trait

    (affirming my suspician drummers are apes)

    - People like music they can understand

    (an area between too elementary and too difficult)

    - Children who learn to play instruments have increased cognitive understanding and focus

    - Music and performance play a role in evolution

    (used to attract a mate)

    - Music is a stimulant and natural high

    (it opens neural pathways that trigger throughout the brain from the cerebral cortext to the frontal lobes)

    - Different handicaps react differently to music

    (Down syndrome do not like music. Williams does)

    I'll stop now. This list is already too long.

  • Patricia

    It wasn't until I was half-way through this book that things started to get really interesting. As a musician, the first half was like retaking Music 101, but I felt this was a book I need to read, so I plowed on. I am looking for answers to the questions: "Why, when I near any musical interval, my brain automatically zips through all the tunes I know which start with that interval, and I start humming one of them?" and "Why the hell have I had '76 Trombones' on my mind for the last 6 weeks?" Is

    It wasn't until I was half-way through this book that things started to get really interesting. As a musician, the first half was like retaking Music 101, but I felt this was a book I need to read, so I plowed on. I am looking for answers to the questions: "Why, when I near any musical interval, my brain automatically zips through all the tunes I know which start with that interval, and I start humming one of them?" and "Why the hell have I had '76 Trombones' on my mind for the last 6 weeks?" Is this what happens when musicians age? I feel like I'm nearing the answers, and its getting quite interesting. (I'm still reading the book). I finally finished the book and solved the mystery of "76 Trombones": it just so happened my cousin who lives on the East coast was playing trumpet in a production of "The Music Man" that telepathic experience had nothing to do with the book. As for the intervals reminding me of tunes, that has something to do with the Exemplar theory which has to do with how musical prototypes are stored in and recalled from memory. Pretty interesting stuff, but I came away with the feeling that there is still not much scientific consensus about how the brain processes music. The book contained a lot of ambiguous "Probablys", and "somehows" and apart from a few interesting and compelling studies, I was ready to move on to something else.

  • Bruce

    In Daniel Levitin's own words, "This book is about the science of music, from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience…. I'll discuss some of the latest studies I and other researchers in our field have conducted on music, musical meaning, and musical pleasure…. [H]ow can we account for wide differences in musical preference -- why is it that one man's Mozart is another man's Madonna?" (p. 11) After reading these 270 pages, I'm sure I can't tell you. I'm pretty disappointed, but then I had real

    In Daniel Levitin's own words, "This book is about the science of music, from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience…. I'll discuss some of the latest studies I and other researchers in our field have conducted on music, musical meaning, and musical pleasure…. [H]ow can we account for wide differences in musical preference -- why is it that one man's Mozart is another man's Madonna?" (p. 11) After reading these 270 pages, I'm sure I can't tell you. I'm pretty disappointed, but then I had really high expectations for this book which it failed to meet (I should know by now never to read the back-cover hype, let alone the 4 pages of promotional blurbs that preceded the table of contents).

    But before confessing my own failings here, let me lay a little blame at the author's feet. Right off the bat, he states, "It's a shame that many people are intimidated by the jargon musicians, music theorists, and cognitive scientists throw around. There is specialized vocabulary in every field of inquiry (try to make sense of a full blood-analysis report from your doctor). But in the case of music, music experts and scientists could do a better job of making their work accessible. That is something I tried to accomplish in this book." (p. 10) Levitin also talks about harboring a preference for identifying

    the brain interprets moving air molecules as music and the behavioral/emotional significance/origins of this auditory processing over simply mapping where in the brain music triggers neurons.

    To that, I say, ha, ha, and double-ha. We take you live to a typical passage (p. 191), which begins as follows: "We found exactly what we had hoped. Listening to music caused a cascade of brain regions to become activated in a particular order: first, auditory cortex for initial processing of the components of the sound. Then the frontal regions, such as BA44 and BA47, that we had previously identified as being involved in processing musical structure and expectations. Finally, a network of regions -- the mesolimbic system -- involved in arousal, pleasure, and the transmission of opiods and the production fo dopamine, culminating in activation in the nucleus accumbens. And the cerebellum and basal ganglia were active throughout, presumably supporting the processing of rhythm and meter."

    If you got that, this book is for you (but not me, alas). Levitin devotes the first 1/5 of this book to defining musical terms (tuning, timbre, scale) he will not really use later. It's interesting, but cognitively irrelevant. There is some fun anecdotal stuff buried in here (did you know that if you chop off the 'attack' of a piano from a recording and just play the body of the pitch, it sounds indistinguishable from a flute? did you know that music appreciation and sociability are closely correlated?), but the questions posed in the introduction are never answered. Is music a by-product of speech, etc. or a seminal human intuition? Ummm… not sure. How and when are music preferences established? Ummm… mostly from exposure during one's teens, but possibly also from that in the womb, early childhood, and later in life. Why? Don't know. Repetition, perhaps?

    I give this book 2 stars for the extensive annotated bibliography at the end and (ironically, considering the author's stated subject matter preferences) the trivially-interesting pictographic brain mappings of music function in the appendix. What a bummer.

  • Bill

    Someone left this behind in the cubby of the plane seat on a flight I took in December. As I'd finished my magazines, I picked it up, and then couldn't put it down. What was most fascinating about the book was the ease at which concepts I'd struggled with years ago were made crisp, clear, and, well, obvious, as they should have been back then. Introductory concepts of music were never made as clear to me than from this. I don't think I could have found a fuller survey of the subject, tying it to

    Someone left this behind in the cubby of the plane seat on a flight I took in December. As I'd finished my magazines, I picked it up, and then couldn't put it down. What was most fascinating about the book was the ease at which concepts I'd struggled with years ago were made crisp, clear, and, well, obvious, as they should have been back then. Introductory concepts of music were never made as clear to me than from this. I don't think I could have found a fuller survey of the subject, tying it to subjects I'm interested in (math, cognition) if I'd looked, and there it was, for free.

    Surely an expert or someone who'd learned more of music or neuroscience would find it basic, but I'd recommend it for a good catchup on the subject and how our understanding of it is changing.

  • Jackie

    A book is the wrong medium for this information. As I read this book, I kept wishing I was watching a PBS show version of it instead, where I could HEAR the music Mr. Levitin was referencing, and see visuals of the brain showing what parts are being affected by music, and how they all link up.

    Instead of having to tell us in excruciating detail what an octave is, he could demonstrate on an instrument, and we could hear it for ourselves. When discussing half steps and whole steps, we could both h

    A book is the wrong medium for this information. As I read this book, I kept wishing I was watching a PBS show version of it instead, where I could HEAR the music Mr. Levitin was referencing, and see visuals of the brain showing what parts are being affected by music, and how they all link up.

    Instead of having to tell us in excruciating detail what an octave is, he could demonstrate on an instrument, and we could hear it for ourselves. When discussing half steps and whole steps, we could both hear them, and see how a piano's white and black keys work with the structure of the scale.

    Beyond all that, I'm a little disappointed in the focus of the book. Mr. Levitin says at one point that he is more interested in the mind, than in the brain. And yet, instead of telling us how all these brain interactions manifest in our minds, he focuses on details about the cerebellum and the amygdala. We learn what parts of the brain act together when listening to music, but not much what that MEANS to us mentally. I guess I wanted more psychology, less biology.

    That doesn't make the subject any less fascinating. I think my favorite chapter was the one on what makes a musician. It's not just innate talent. No, it takes hours and hours and hours of practice, 10,000 in fact to master an instrument (this may sound familiar to those of you who read Malcolm Gladwell's book

    ). It may also take helpful physiology, like long fingers to reach keys on a piano easily. But humans are INNATELY musical, and how our brains and bodies react to music is astonishing.

    Other interesting things I learned:

    - humans have always made music, and that it likely predates language

    - music can comfort and inspire us, and has the power to change our mood through the chemistry in our brains

    - music activates both the oldest and newest parts of the brain

    - we all have expertise in music, because we all listen to it

    - the importance of timbre, the quality of sound that distinguishes a note played on a guitar from the same note played on a trumpet, and the quality that lets us recognize each other's voices

    And I liked this quote: "Music communicates to us emotionally through systematic violations of expectations."

    And I kept thinking of this other quote: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," (no, I can't tell you who said that, maybe Elvis Costello, maybe Laurie Anderson, maybe Steve Martin...)

  • Michael

    “A” for effort and ambition and “C” for execution. He tries to be all things to all people, bouncing too much from folksy to scholarly and from self-referential to didactic perspectives. Levitin has a substantial music background, both in performance and production, and a very productive track record in cognitive neuroscience. Thus, his personal ambition to account for the neural basis of music, music listening pleasure, and musical creativity is compelling to him, and that motivation is infecti

    “A” for effort and ambition and “C” for execution. He tries to be all things to all people, bouncing too much from folksy to scholarly and from self-referential to didactic perspectives. Levitin has a substantial music background, both in performance and production, and a very productive track record in cognitive neuroscience. Thus, his personal ambition to account for the neural basis of music, music listening pleasure, and musical creativity is compelling to him, and that motivation is infectious enough to justify a reader eagerly grabbing the book up based on its title and blurb. Enquiring minds want to know. After hungrily penetrating 50 pages of so of the book, many readers are likely to feel duped. Progress on the target areas is accelerating, but it’s not that enlightening to the average reader. Yet, as Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for.”

    As a musical ignoramus, I appreciated the Music 101—I think I can finally grasp what a “key” and a “major chord” are. And I was enlightened by his perspectives on how expectation and violation of chord progressions has a lot to do with enjoyment of music. As a former neuroscientist, I appreciated the review of progress in the field. As one would expect, music engages both primitive emotional circuits and higher analytic systems involved in memory, temporal information processing and prediction. The overlap with language systems is interesting, and speculation on cerebellar involvement beyond motor performance was fascinating. That people with Wilson’s syndrome are good at music and empathy while those with Autism Spectrum Disorders are not provides some important food for thought. But the brain stuff I don’t believe helps anyone appreciate why music is so special to our human culture or is so pleasurable.

    For this, he goes out of his field to summarize arguments against the notion that music is sort of an accident of evolution of cognitive skills with clear adaptive value. He quotes Pinker: “Music is auditory cheesecake…It just happens to tickle several important parts of the brain in a highly pleasurable way, as cheesecake tickles the palate.” In Gould’s architectural analogy, music is like “spandrels”, those elegant spaces between arches which were not invented for their own sake. Levitin assembles evidence for music prevalence in all current and past human cultures, its importance for social cohesion and courtship, and lands on the evolutionary psychology perspective that its adaptive value relates to sexual selection (i.e. musical skills conveyed reproductive advantages through mate selection).

    For the discussion on heritability of music skills, I felt he was fairly even handed, leaving open that even Mozart’s genius may have benefited mostly from practice and environment in the nature/nuture perspective. Musical skill fits in with the larger ongoing question of genetic contributions to artistic creativity. A nice emphasis in this book is Levitin’s consideration of how even the average person qualifies as an expert and skilled listener and how our current division between performers and listeners represents a violation of the ancient traditions of all members of society participating in both.


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