This Is Your Brain On Music

I was surprised! This is as much about neuroscience as it is about music theory. Which is a good thing. I learned many things about both areas. Like lefties (like me) have more symmetrical brains. And that most cultures around the world don’t have separate words for “sing” and “dance” which is fantastic. And that someone has programmed a neural network that can tap its foot to music, only it sometimes gets it wrong and taps twice as fast as it should – I do that!

And how many neuroscientists would be able to drop a sentence like “I was chatting to Joni Mitchell about her bassists.” (In a former life, Daniel Levitin was a moderately successful rock guitarist and a very successful music producer). He also drops bombs on all kinds of subjects: expertise – you can apparently become an expert at pretty much anything, so long as you put 10,000 hours of practice into it. That’s 2 hours a day for 10 years. With extra at the weekends. So maybe I’ll never be an expert guitarist (I skipped practising tonight to watch the football). But the way he explains music theory – without ever getting weirdly technical – makes it easy to see how music works on your head, why it makes you feel the way it does (some bits tap into your reptilian cerebellum, changes in chords that we don’t expect thrill us, even when we don’t realise what we were expecting, familiar songs burn neural pathways so strong that we can recognise them played backwards, or at different speeds, or on different instruments or all of them at once…).

The most important thing I think I will take from this book, after I’ve forgotten what it says about the various functions of the amygdala (mostly emotional response, I think), is that we are all experts at music listening (I must have racked up several sets of 10,000 hours by now) even if we can’t describe precisely what we’re listening for and that the distinction between expert musicians and everyone else is a relatively recent, and probably false divide. So I might as well keep banging on my guitar.

See also:
Bloomsbury Book of The Mind – Levitin is a neurologist who doesn’t much care for the interior physics of the brain when he could be describing mind functions.

How to be free – Tom Hodgkinson also preaches on the subject of music creation for everyone.


5 thoughts on “This Is Your Brain On Music”

  1. Hello,

    Glad to know that you enjoyed the book. This book gave me the necessary inspiration to continue pursuing my line of research. Up to that point (prior to reading the book) I found the research in music cognition extremely scattered, although a lot was already going on. Dr. Levitin’s book put various research areas in music together in a comprehensive form. I have also reviewed this book in slightly more detail in my blog (started recently), perhaps more from a cognitive science student’s perspective. Do feel free to comment. I am looking forward to reading the Oliver Sacks book.


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