This Is Your Brain On Music: understanding a human obsession
Daniel Levitin BUY HERE NOW
ISBN 978 1 84354 715 0
With a neuroscientist’s conviction that the as-yet inexplicable is just shadows and dust and cryptic meaning, Daniel Levitin sets out to explain why collections of easily-recognisable sounds have such a profound impact on our emotions, revealing for us the mechanisms behind the magic.
He has been publicly lauded in his endeavour by serious backers, from the polymath Brian Appleyard in The Times, to philosopher (and now also music author) Oliver Sacks, to David Byrne of Talking Heads. And it’s obvious why.
Levitin himself achieves the almost-impossible, discussing the ultratechnical – in two subjects – in the least affected manner imaginable, using music to tell us about the brain, and the brain to teach us more about music.
A record producer – with Stevie Wonder, Santana, Clapton and others – before he turned to science, Levitin takes evident delight in pairing off Mozart and Madonna, Liszt and Ludacris, to demonstrate the fundamental truths underlying all music. And in case any of those names is unfamiliar, every example cited is generously made available for audio-reference on Levitin’s site: www.yourbrainonmusic.com.
From his incisive definitions of music’s building blocks to his differentiation between music as science and music as human experience, a clear elegance runs throughout Levitin’s writing, whether he is discussing how the number of potential thoughts in a brain is greater than the number of particles in the universe (enabling us to make such varied music from only 12 notes), or illustrating his arguments with wonderful trivia: a tree falling in an empty wood actually doesn’t make a sound (it merely creates vibrations, which aren’t sounds until someone ‘hears’ them).
Many questions in musical neuroscience haven’t been solved, like why a perfect fifth sounds so ‘perfect’, or why loud music creates such a physical thrill. But in this book Levitin isn’t trying to answer every question; he’s attempting to narrow the (popularly perceived) gap between regular Joes and musicologists.
In Africa, there are professional musicians, sure enough; but people think you’re very odd if you say you can’t sing or (trust me!) won’t dance. They believe these functions to be intuitively the same, and hardwired, from deep evolutionary/sexual and cultural origins.
Levitin does too, and says the average person has more musical ability than is often believed: even the minimally-trained ear expects the 7th to resolve to the 8ve, and can immediately distinguish between Dylan acoustic and Dylan electric. Most people are at least expert listeners of music, and they should be: Americans spend more money on music than on prescription drugs.
Ultimately, contrary to the notion of musical ‘gift’, Levitin argues that, even for the likes of the young Mozart, genetic propensity only gets you about halfway; the rest is environment and hard work.
Very few people could have written this book at all, let alone so deftly. A relaxed blend of arts and science, This Is Your Brain On Music is no quick read, but it is certainly a very enjoyable one. How often do you get to say that about a book on neuroscience?! BUY HERE NOW