Jackie "the Librarian"'s Reviews > This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin
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Jul 03, 10

bookshelves: non-fiction, music
Read from June 26 to July 03, 2010

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 Outliers). 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...)
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Reading Progress

06/26/2010 page 140
44.0% "Much more information about parts of the brain than I really want to know."
06/28/2010 page 169
53.0% "This book is NOT light reading. The amygdala has been long considered the seat of emotions in mammals. And it's right next to hippocampus, the "crucial structure for memory storage." Got that?"
07/01/2010 page 242
76.0% "Is music necessary for the survival of the species?"

Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Sally (new)

Sally Hey! I bought this for Matt but he put it down at page 25 or so saying "I'm not smart enough for this book." Let me know how you do with it - if I should even attempt.


message 2: by Lisa (new) - added it

Lisa Vegan Jackie, I still want to read the book, but that's an excellent point about book form maybe not being the best format to learn this information.


message 3: by Lisa (new) - added it

Lisa Vegan Abigail, I don't know if they were taught together or not, but there's a very high correlation between doing well at music and at mathematics. I've read extensively about it, but I've also definitely seen it firsthand.


message 4: by RandomAnthony (new)

RandomAnthony I would like to read this book in theory, but like Matt, I think I'd get bored about twelve pages into the text, put it down, and read comics.

Abigail, if I remember correctly, Plato (or, uh, one of those guys) believed Math, Music, and Astronomy should be taught first and hand in hand...the strong basis in logic and structure inherent in the three would provide the base for the study for other subjects.


message 5: by Patty (new)

Patty May Jackie you should start submitting reviews to the New Yorker.... add the Horn book.... You should get yourself published. I always love reading your reviews!


message 6: by RandomAnthony (new)

RandomAnthony Thanks, Abigail...I might be wrong, though...I'm getting that one off the top of my head...don't trust me for facts/references, Buns and Jacks are way better with those:)


Jackie "the Librarian" According to the book, "Music listening enhances or changes certain neural circuits, including the density of dendritic connections in the primary auditory cortex. The Harvard neuroscientist Gottfried Schlaug has shown that the front portion of the corpus callosum - the mass of fibers connecting the two cerebral hemispheres - is significantly larger in musicians than nonmusicians, and particularly for musicians who began their training early." p. 220

Whether than translates to better abilities in math, Daniel Levitin doesn't say. But it sounds promising! :)


message 8: by Allie (new) - added it

Allie I'm listening to this on audiobook and it's very engaging. You get to hear all of the instruments in his examples and if I need clarification I just rewind a bit and relisten. If I were reading the paperback version, think I might struggle with the material more, but the audiobook is quite nice.


Jackie "the Librarian" Allie, that's exactly what I wanted! I will keep it in mind as an audiobook title to read in the future. Right now, I'm listening to Keith Richards' autobiography, Life, which oddly enough doesn't have any musical examples of the songs he's talking about.


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