THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC: THE SCIENCE OF A HUMAN OBSESSION.
By Daniel J. Levitin. 2006, 2007. 322 pages.
Published internationally by the Penguin Group; previously published
Some interesting things I learned from this book:
That music activates more parts of the brain than any other mental
activity. That hearing a piece of music activates the same parts of a
listener's brain as it does in the brain of a musician playing the piece.
That ordinary untrained people can reproduce the exact pitch and tempo
of songs they are familiar with a single version of. That timbre is the
musical element most easily remembered and which, when heard, can most
quickly (fraction of a second) enable a listener to recognize a piece
of music. That the octave is central to all musics, based as it is on
laws of physics. That the average female voice is exactly an octave
higher than the average male voice. That divisions of the octave - and
its beginning pitch--are a matter of arbitrary convention, but that
irregular divisions of the octave in some scales make music easier to
Levitin is an internationally distinguished neuroscientist with chairs
at McGill University. Prior to his academic career he worked as a record
producer, sound engineer and session musician. He studied music at
Berklee in Boston. His personal musical interests are mostly with popular
music but in this book can be found a brief discussion about Mahler's
Fifth Symphony in relation to his Fourth and other references to classical
music, I think that his scientific results will apply to all kinds of
What I found particularly refreshing about Levitin's extremely well
written book is that he simply presents, as scientific fact, claims that
are often tediously argued as some kind of irresolvable philosophical
problem. I also particularly liked his emphasis on timbre and rhythm,
elements that get short shrift in many musical discussions. On rhythm,
incidentally, toward the end of the book he introduces a 'complexity
curve' which makes some sense of the fact that individuals have a very
varied capacity for enjoying, say, complex Latin rhythms.
Some open questions that Levitin takes up have to do with the nature
of musical memory. Does it fill in the blanks, so to speak, or is it a
more exact recall capacity for details of music; he finds both extremes
unsatisfactory. He also argues, in the last chapter, that music first
came about in the evolutionary process as part of the courtship process.
The book begins with a clear and substantial account of the rudiments
of music, which he invites musician-readers to skip; but I recommend
that musicians at least skim through this because it gives meaningful
context to the concerns of his later chapters.
Copyright 2007 by R. James Tobin
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