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This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession Paperback – August 28, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Think of a song that resonates deep down in your being. Now imagine sitting down with someone who was there when the song was recorded and can tell you how that series of sounds was committed to tape, and who can also explain why that particular combination of rhythms, timbres and pitches has lodged in your memory, making your pulse race and your heart swell every time you hear it. Remarkably, Levitin does all this and more, interrogating the basic nature of hearing and of music making (this is likely the only book whose jacket sports blurbs from both Oliver Sacks and Stevie Wonder), without losing an affectionate appreciation for the songs he's reducing to neural impulses. Levitin is the ideal guide to this material: he enjoyed a successful career as a rock musician and studio producer before turning to cognitive neuroscience, earning a Ph.D. and becoming a top researcher into how our brains interpret music. Though the book starts off a little dryly (the first chapter is a crash course in music theory), Levitin's snappy prose and relaxed style quickly win one over and will leave readers thinking about the contents of their iPods in an entirely new way. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From School Library Journal
Adult/High School–Levitin's fascination with the mystery of music and the study of why it affects us so deeply is at the heart of this book. In a real sense, the author is a rock 'n' roll doctor, and in that guise dissects our relationship with music. He points out that bone flutes are among the oldest of human artifacts to have been found and takes readers on a tour of our bio-history. In this textbook for those who don't like textbooks, he discusses neurobiology, neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, empirical philosophy, Gestalt psychology, memory theory, categorization theory, neurochemistry, and exemplar theory in relation to music theory and history in a manner that will draw in teens. A wonderful introduction to the science of one of the arts that make us human.–Will Marston, Berkeley Public Library, CA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Top Customer Reviews
He starts out with a forty page first chapter "What is Music?", which is as good a short explanation of key concepts as tone, scale, fifths, and timbre as anyone could want, and is a fine foundation for all that comes after, a collection of scientific lore and tidbits from all over. For instance, even if you are not a musician, you have a huge store of tunes in your memory. You may not have perfect pitch, the ability to know that an A flat is an A flat as soon as you hear it, but Levitin's own research has provided surprising evidence that your sense of pitch, even if you are not a musician, is really quite good. Subjects who were asked to sing a song from memory got the absolute pitch just right, or very close; they did the same with the song's tempo. There are differences in the brains of musicians and nonmusicians. The corpus callosum, the mass of fibers that connects the right brain hemisphere to the left, is larger in musicians, and is especially larger in those that started music training early. The overall lesson here, though, is that we are all musical, even if we are not musicians, and so non-expert musical brains are really very similar to expert ones. There are descriptions here of surprising research that makes clear how truly ready our brains are to incorporate musical experience. Fetuses in the last three months of gestation, for instance, can hear music within the womb, along with other outside and inside noises. Experiments have shown that if you repeatedly play a song into the womb, and then make sure the child does not hear it again after birth until it is one year old, and then play the music again, the infant will prefer hearing the womb-music rather than completely novel music. This was true whether the experimental music was Vivaldi or the Backstreet Boys.
Levitin certainly has connections; he tells of discussions with Francis Crick about themes in this book, as well as with Joni Mitchell. The final chapter, "The Music Instinct", is a response to cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, who spoke at a 1997 convention of researchers in music perception and cognition. Pinker took the dismissive stance that music was "auditory cheesecake", tickling the parts of the brain that were really for the important functions of language and (unlike language) useless as a force in human evolution. It is not surprising that Levitin and his fellow researchers disagree. Darwin himself felt that musical tones were used in conveying emotion and that those who were able to expend energy in singing or playing were demonstrating biological and sexual fitness. Musical success does make for high numbers of opportunities for spreading one's genes (just ask Mick Jagger). Interest in music peaks in adolescence, indicating a role in sexual selection. Music has been around longer than agriculture, and there is no evidence that language actually preceded music in our species. It may have promoted the cognitive development that was harnessed for speech. Only in the past few hundred years did music become a spectator activity, but in the eons when it could have shaped our social evolution, it was a group activity that may have promoted group togetherness and synchrony. It is an engaging final argument that serves to emphasize the importance of all that the book has presented before, a demonstration that looking at an important human activity in a scientific way only increases our wonder and delight in the activity itself.
-The detailed discussion of the Haydn's Surprise Symphony theme (p92-93) is flawed at every turn: He uses the term parallelism (a term reserved for describing a particular harmonic device) incorrectly to refer to the melody. He describes the melody as going up "just a little" when what we have at that point is the *largest interval leap* anywhere in the theme. Then, "the highest note we've encountered so far" in the melody is incorrectly identified as the fifth. We have already (just two notes ago) heard the C above the G he is referring to. (The highest note is the tonic, not the fifth). Finally, the "surprise" in the Surprise symphony, is identified in the wrong place--eight measures too soon. Why so much detail about something the author hasn't researched? Not only that, but the misunderstandings lead him to bad analysis.
-In one of the book's stupidest sentences, the author claims that "A schema for Dixieland includes foot-tapping, up-tempo music, and unless the band was trying to be ironic, we would not expect there to be overlap between their repertoire and that of a funeral procession" (p117). Dixieland bands playing funeral processions is, of course, an important and well-known New Orleans tradition.
-Beethoven's Ode to Joy theme from his 9th symphony is used as an example of violating expectations (p 119). He describes that we expect the first phrase to end on "do" and we are surprised to hear it end on "re." In the second phrase we are surprised to hear it end on "do" after hearing the first phrase end on "re." Most musicians would disagree with this analysis. This phrase structure is so common, in fact, that there are terms for paired phrases such as this. (The first phrase, typically ending on a member of the dominant chord as happens here, is called the antecedent. The second phrase ending on the tonic is called the consequent. Together the pairing is called a period, or informally a call-and-response.) What is described here as Beethoven's clever violation of expectation is a very good example of the very most common phrase structure in all of music.
-Later, in describing how jazz musicians play over AABA song form (p238-239), Dr. Levitin explains that the "B" section is the "chorus." I think you'll find that by far the most common term for the B section is the *bridge,* the term "chorus" being reserved for one entire iteration of the form. He goes on to describe this as a point of confusion, but it's not if you use the usual terms. Confused himself, he also says "Some songs have a C section, called the bridge." One of his own examples, "All of Me" is ABAC. However, most musicians would say that this song has no bridge, and certainly the C section of "All of Me" cannot be considered the bridge.
I don't have the time or the space for a line-by-line critique of the entire book, but suffice it to say that my examples are not cherry-picked (rather the positive aspects in some reviews seem to be cherry picked, and some of the positive reviews are not so positive). The writing throughout the book is imprecise, inaccurate, misleading, and interspersed with nonsense. The anecdotes make up a conspicuously large portion of the book, and are conspicuously self-serving (dropping the names of rock stars and famous scientists). He has an entire chapter on meeting Crick (of the DNA-discovering pair Watson and Crick). According to the author's account, he was nervous, and had a past memory that kept him from introducing himself. What a relief to find that after finally meeting, Crick enjoyed his company and found his research fascinating! ("Crick's eyes lit up. He sat up straight in his chair. 'Music,' he said. He brushed away his lepton colleague.") On reflection, the topic of music and the brain seems less the main point of the book, and more a jumping off point for a superficial, glowing autobiography. I was disappointed.
This a fantastic book, if for nothing more than it gets you interested in wanting to read more. The author, much like modern astrophysicists like C. Sagan and L. Krauss might describe space ("billions and billions..."), has quite a way with words. He embeds in the reader a sense of wonder, and of amazement, at the magic that happens when you listen to music. If you're an audiophile who does not have an over inflated view of yourself and has a generally open mind about music, then this book is for you. I am not educated in this field whatsoever, and I found the analogies, comparisons, and even the really "dense" material very enticing and interesting.
I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the statements and claims the author makes because I am not educated in this field. He could be completely wrong and pushing his own agenda (although it's a little hard to arrive at that conclusion unless you have some sort of raging superiority complex). But that kind of conversation, which fills many of the lower rated reviews, is missing the point.
The language, the examples, the ranges of simple description to complicated extrapolation, it is all nourishing. These are interesting things to think about. And for a layman like myself, the point is not to be right, but to be interested. After reading this book, I don't care if he's right (although I doubt his inaccuracies, if any, surmount to much). I just care that he made me think about music in a new and interesting way.
And for the average reader like myself, that is all you should want from a book like this.