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This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

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Whether you load your iPod with Bach or Bono, music has a significant role in your life—even if you never realized it. Why does music evoke such powerful moods? The answers are at last be- coming clear, thanks to revolutionary neuroscience and the emerging field of evolutionary psychology. Both a cutting-edge study and a tribute to the beauty of music itself, This Is Your Brain on Music unravels a host of mysteries that affect everything from pop culture to our understanding of human nature, including:
• Are our musical preferences shaped in utero?
• Is there a cutoff point for acquiring new tastes in music?
• What do PET scans and MRIs reveal about the brain’s response to music?
• Is musical pleasure different from other kinds of pleasure?

This Is Your Brain on Music explores cultures in which singing is considered an essential human function, patients who have a rare disorder that prevents them from making sense of music, and scientists studying why two people may not have the same definition of pitch. At every turn, this provocative work unlocks deep secrets about how nature and nurture forge a uniquely human obsession.

314 pages, Hardcover

First published August 1, 2006

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About the author

Daniel J. Levitin

20 books794 followers
Daniel J. Levitin runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, where he holds the Bell Chair in the Psychology of Electronic Communication. Before becoming a neuroscientist, he worked as a session musician, sound engineer and record producer. He has written extensively both in scientific journals and music trade magazines such as Grammy and Billboard.



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5 stars
23,053 (37%)
4 stars
18,010 (29%)
3 stars
13,278 (21%)
2 stars
4,087 (6%)
1 star
2,924 (4%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,840 reviews
Profile Image for Jackie "the Librarian".
870 reviews260 followers
July 4, 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...)
Profile Image for Matthew.
92 reviews14 followers
September 17, 2007
There's a lot of amazing stuff in this book to contemplate, but the author tries too hard to make it relevant for readers who listen to the Eagles and Mariah Carey (musicians he specifically sites), and he gets caught up in the most mundane details of his personal interactions with his colleagues at meetings and dinners and such, and who ordered what, and how everybody was dressed, and where everybody got their degrees.

My girlfriend got me interested in it because I found her passionate explanations of the salient neuroscience very interesting, but that information could be contained in a book about a quarter of the length of this one. Read it, because you don't have Stacey to give you the short version, and you'll love learning about how deeply and profoundly music affects human and animal brains, but do yourself a favor and skip a few paragraphs every time Levitin starts to ramble on with his personal anecdotes which usually pertain only very tangentially to the science at hand.
Profile Image for Sam.
28 reviews7 followers
March 24, 2008
Seemingly for musicians or composers this book is more fitting a read for scientists and doctors. Not much content is musicianship related. Middle third is a bore.

What I learned:
- There is no sound in space
(there are no molecules to vibrate)
- Virtuosity comes from hours of practice
(talent and absolute pitch play a small role)
- Learning to play an instrument after 20 is hard
(the brain is done developing)
- Percussion is a primitive musical trait
(affirming my suspician drummers are apes)
- People like music they can understand
(an area between too elementary and too difficult)
- Children who learn to play instruments have increased cognitive understanding and focus
- Music and performance play a role in evolution
(used to attract a mate)
- Music is a stimulant and natural high
(it opens neural pathways that trigger throughout the brain from the cerebral cortext to the frontal lobes)
- Different handicaps react differently to music
(Down syndrome do not like music. Williams does)

I'll stop now. This list is already too long.

Profile Image for Patricia.
73 reviews11 followers
December 6, 2009
It wasn't until I was half-way through this book that things started to get really interesting. As a musician, the first half was like retaking Music 101, but I felt this was a book I need to read, so I plowed on. I am looking for answers to the questions: "Why, when I near any musical interval, my brain automatically zips through all the tunes I know which start with that interval, and I start humming one of them?" and "Why the hell have I had '76 Trombones' on my mind for the last 6 weeks?" Is this what happens when musicians age? I feel like I'm nearing the answers, and its getting quite interesting. (I'm still reading the book). I finally finished the book and solved the mystery of "76 Trombones": it just so happened my cousin who lives on the East coast was playing trumpet in a production of "The Music Man" that telepathic experience had nothing to do with the book. As for the intervals reminding me of tunes, that has something to do with the Exemplar theory which has to do with how musical prototypes are stored in and recalled from memory. Pretty interesting stuff, but I came away with the feeling that there is still not much scientific consensus about how the brain processes music. The book contained a lot of ambiguous "Probablys", and "somehows" and apart from a few interesting and compelling studies, I was ready to move on to something else.
Profile Image for Pamela W.
254 reviews3 followers
February 24, 2008
I really despise myself for giving what should be an awesome book only 2 stars. I know I am mentally feeble, but was this ever dry!!! Interesting topic - neuroscience & music - but the author did go on at times (too much music theory, god I hated studying that and I'm a musician) and took the scientific aspects to a degree where I often found myself stopping to ponder "what the hell is he talking about?" It read like it could be someone's dissertation. The second half is slightly more interesting. I'm sure Oliver Sacks book re: dysfunctional psychological reactions/processing of music is going to be a more fun and interesting read, and let's face it, I am reading for fun, this is not a textbook for my evening class at The School of Rock. When I get to invite 4 people from history to a dinner party, I'll not invite Daniel Levitin; all the other guests will try to avoid him all night as he does go on and on (much like this review).
Profile Image for Mike Bularz.
44 reviews4 followers
December 23, 2008
From the reviews I've seen here, the material seems to have passed over most people's heads (by being too rough, or the phrase you'll come across a few times, "I didn't feel like I walked away exclaiming 'eureka!'"... or the book angered more expert readers by its simplicity, but it wasn't meant to talk of new discoveries as much as it was meant for a general public.

The book takes a while for an average person, and I'd say you have to have some knowledge of chorded instruments and such where you'd come across ideas such as frequencies ringing together to form major and minor chords. It covers various interesting topics, and I speculate the reason people walk away feeling not so enlightened is because after chapter 8+, chapters 1-5 are a distant memory. If you have trouble, jot down a few things, it helped me.
There is one chapter that the author wastes time talking about a dinner with his idol neuro-scientists from which you will take not much away except for a list of forgettable names and how the next chapter's ideas were spurred by one of the professors' advice: "Look at the connections [something along those lines at least]".
Overall, Im glad I read this book, and often check back to it as a reference, and it's great food for thought.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,509 followers
August 17, 2012
“A” for effort and ambition and “C” for execution. He tries to be all things to all people, bouncing too much from folksy to scholarly and from self-referential to didactic perspectives. Levitin has a substantial music background, both in performance and production, and a very productive track record in cognitive neuroscience. Thus, his personal ambition to account for the neural basis of music, music listening pleasure, and musical creativity is compelling to him, and that motivation is infectious enough to justify a reader eagerly grabbing the book up based on its title and blurb. Enquiring minds want to know. After hungrily penetrating 50 pages of so of the book, many readers are likely to feel duped. Progress on the target areas is accelerating, but it’s not that enlightening to the average reader. Yet, as Browning wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for.”

As a musical ignoramus, I appreciated the Music 101—I think I can finally grasp what a “key” and a “major chord” are. And I was enlightened by his perspectives on how expectation and violation of chord progressions has a lot to do with enjoyment of music. As a former neuroscientist, I appreciated the review of progress in the field. As one would expect, music engages both primitive emotional circuits and higher analytic systems involved in memory, temporal information processing and prediction. The overlap with language systems is interesting, and speculation on cerebellar involvement beyond motor performance was fascinating. That people with Wilson’s syndrome are good at music and empathy while those with Autism Spectrum Disorders are not provides some important food for thought. But the brain stuff I don’t believe helps anyone appreciate why music is so special to our human culture or is so pleasurable.

For this, he goes out of his field to summarize arguments against the notion that music is sort of an accident of evolution of cognitive skills with clear adaptive value. He quotes Pinker: “Music is auditory cheesecake…It just happens to tickle several important parts of the brain in a highly pleasurable way, as cheesecake tickles the palate.” In Gould’s architectural analogy, music is like “spandrels”, those elegant spaces between arches which were not invented for their own sake. Levitin assembles evidence for music prevalence in all current and past human cultures, its importance for social cohesion and courtship, and lands on the evolutionary psychology perspective that its adaptive value relates to sexual selection (i.e. musical skills conveyed reproductive advantages through mate selection).

For the discussion on heritability of music skills, I felt he was fairly even handed, leaving open that even Mozart’s genius may have benefited mostly from practice and environment in the nature/nuture perspective. Musical skill fits in with the larger ongoing question of genetic contributions to artistic creativity. A nice emphasis in this book is Levitin’s consideration of how even the average person qualifies as an expert and skilled listener and how our current division between performers and listeners represents a violation of the ancient traditions of all members of society participating in both.
Profile Image for Gretchen Rubin.
Author 41 books88.4k followers
January 6, 2020
So many people have recommended this book to me over the years, and finally I read it. Absolutely fascinating—and I'm not even a huge fan of music. Now I'm reading everything by Daniel Levitin.
Profile Image for Marco.
53 reviews6 followers
August 1, 2012
Loved it! The book was highly enjoyable for me and I'm not a professional musician (or a neuroscientist), but I've always been aware of what music can do to me, from meditation to headbanging and beyond. I've read some people got disappointed of finding 'too much music theory' or 'too much neuroscience'; well honestly I don't think the book has to much of either of them, it's not written for neuroscientists or for professional musicians (even when I think both groups could enjoy it), and lets face it, you picked up a book about music and brains, what did you expect? Maybe some people wanted a book with 'fun facts' but guys, if you are willing to understand the surface of this things you MUST know the basics of both subjects, and that's precisely what Daniel Levitin presents here. Otherwise I invite you to pick up a copy of Reader's Digest and indulge yourself with some factoids.

Due to space and traveling problems I don't keep a lot of books with me, but this one will stay in my library for sure.
Profile Image for Bruce.
439 reviews73 followers
July 23, 2008
In Daniel Levitin's own words, "This book is about the science of music, from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience…. I'll discuss some of the latest studies I and other researchers in our field have conducted on music, musical meaning, and musical pleasure…. [H]ow can we account for wide differences in musical preference -- why is it that one man's Mozart is another man's Madonna?" (p. 11) After reading these 270 pages, I'm sure I can't tell you. I'm pretty disappointed, but then I had really high expectations for this book which it failed to meet (I should know by now never to read the back-cover hype, let alone the 4 pages of promotional blurbs that preceded the table of contents).

But before confessing my own failings here, let me lay a little blame at the author's feet. Right off the bat, he states, "It's a shame that many people are intimidated by the jargon musicians, music theorists, and cognitive scientists throw around. There is specialized vocabulary in every field of inquiry (try to make sense of a full blood-analysis report from your doctor). But in the case of music, music experts and scientists could do a better job of making their work accessible. That is something I tried to accomplish in this book." (p. 10) Levitin also talks about harboring a preference for identifying how the brain interprets moving air molecules as music and the behavioral/emotional significance/origins of this auditory processing over simply mapping where in the brain music triggers neurons.

To that, I say, ha, ha, and double-ha. We take you live to a typical passage (p. 191), which begins as follows: "We found exactly what we had hoped. Listening to music caused a cascade of brain regions to become activated in a particular order: first, auditory cortex for initial processing of the components of the sound. Then the frontal regions, such as BA44 and BA47, that we had previously identified as being involved in processing musical structure and expectations. Finally, a network of regions -- the mesolimbic system -- involved in arousal, pleasure, and the transmission of opiods and the production fo dopamine, culminating in activation in the nucleus accumbens. And the cerebellum and basal ganglia were active throughout, presumably supporting the processing of rhythm and meter."

If you got that, this book is for you (but not me, alas). Levitin devotes the first 1/5 of this book to defining musical terms (tuning, timbre, scale) he will not really use later. It's interesting, but cognitively irrelevant. There is some fun anecdotal stuff buried in here (did you know that if you chop off the 'attack' of a piano from a recording and just play the body of the pitch, it sounds indistinguishable from a flute? did you know that music appreciation and sociability are closely correlated?), but the questions posed in the introduction are never answered. Is music a by-product of speech, etc. or a seminal human intuition? Ummm… not sure. How and when are music preferences established? Ummm… mostly from exposure during one's teens, but possibly also from that in the womb, early childhood, and later in life. Why? Don't know. Repetition, perhaps?

I give this book 2 stars for the extensive annotated bibliography at the end and (ironically, considering the author's stated subject matter preferences) the trivially-interesting pictographic brain mappings of music function in the appendix. What a bummer.
Profile Image for Barbara K..
396 reviews73 followers
January 1, 2023
Yet another book I picked up on an Audible sale. I really do get exposed to a lot of things I might not read otherwise because I can’t resist thinking I’m getting a bargain. :-)

From the author’s perspective I may be the ideal reader this book, “an exploration of the relationship between music and the mind”. In my youth I played piano and clarinet, studied some music theory, and minored in music history as an undergraduate. I am married to a cognitive psychologist, which has resulted in my absorbing a certain amount of information about how the brain works (by osmosis - and from grading Intro Psych quizzes). So I have some background in both sides of the music/brain equation.

Would this book appeal to other lay readers, the author’s stated target audience? If they had a background in music OR cognition and a genuine interest in how they fit together, probably. If they had no music training and knew nothing about cognitive psychology, I think they would need a deep desire to know more to make this a rewarding read. Although Leviton explains the basic elements of music in detail, I imagine I would have found it challenging to absorb it all with no previous background. Add in the descriptions of the functionality of the different areas of the brain, and it’s a lot of academic information to digest.

In other words, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much as I did if it was ALL new to me and I had only a passing interest in the topic. At times it lagged a bit. Levitin is very careful to give credit to all of the composers, performers and scientists he references in the book, which is commendable, but it does slow down the reading. And I could have done without his gratuitous name-dropping. I’m happy for him that he had Francis Crick’s endorsement to pursue one line of his research, but spending half a chapter setting up the circumstances of their meeting was, for me, a waste of my listening time.

Which brings me to something else. I definitely recommend listening to this rather than reading it in print. In the opening sections on music especially, he illustrates some of his points by playing a chord or tapping out a rhythm, helpful to cement concepts that will arise later in the book.

It was interesting to learn the brain functions that cause us to bond most closely to the music we enjoyed in our teens or as young adults, or why some chords and chord progressions are inherently pleasing and others are more challenging. And why we are less likely to enjoy music styles that are new to us as we age.

I listen to less music now than I did years ago, largely because I spend more time with audiobooks. When I do listen, it’s typically to music I’m familiar with, whether it’s my 60’s-70’s playlist, or the trio in the last act of Der Rosenkavalier, which never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

And now I know why.
Profile Image for WhatIReallyRead.
685 reviews494 followers
May 26, 2018
Two random facts about me:
1) I love music
2) I love cognitive and neuroscience

So I was thrilled about this book.

And it was indeed pretty good. My main takeaway from it is that our enjoyment of music stems from the setting up and violation of expectations and human's innate instinct to seek out patterns in whatever stimuli that comes our way.

I recommend the audiobook version because it provides musical examples of what the author is talking about, so I believe it's much more convenient to comprehend that the written version.

It took a while to finish because every time I started listening to the book about music I got a massive urge to listen to some. So I had to scratch that itch, and that kept me distracted from reading Brain on Music in big chunks.

It took a lot of set-up and some of the things described in this book I already knew, so they weren't as exciting, hence the 4 stars.
Profile Image for Laura.
636 reviews124 followers
October 3, 2019
Fascinating study of both music and the brain. It isn't a particularly quick read because there are so many facts, studies and trivia related to each point the author is exploring.
Profile Image for Ken.
120 reviews9 followers
October 28, 2010
This is one of those books that I think is a valuable read but not necessarily an enjoyable one..at least for the general reader. If you bring a background in neuroscience then this is a treasure chest of information. My personal interest lies in music specifically and I saw this as an opportunity to better understand how our brains engage with music. Coupled with Oliver Sacks collection "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" we begin to unlock the mysterious properties of music to help us communicate/learn even when burdened with serious psychological disorders. Fascinating stuff. Levitin frequently lightens a very technical discussion with references to pop/jazz music but overall his analysis is complex and difficult to present in an easily readable format. It seems evident to me after reading both books that there is still much to be learned about the human brain, but music has a unique power to shape cultures and our minds in a way that other art forms cannot. Many of Levithans chapters are worth reading by themselves. For example, I found his writing on "What Makes a Musician" and why we are drawn to certain types of music (and remember certain songs) especially interesting.
Profile Image for Orsolya.
608 reviews287 followers
June 18, 2011
We tend to make music for as much granted as we do breathing. Music is EVERYWHERE. The same way that you encounter hundreds of advertisements in a day: you also encounter music in various forms.This is Your Brain on Music (yes, based on the popular egg-drug PSA, explores how music is processed within your brain and why we react the way we do.

This journey within the musical brain begins with a brief description of music in terms of notes, patterns, tempo, etc. One can skip this section if already familiar or simply not interested. It won't hinder your understanding of the subsequent chapters. Levitin then dives into explaining such noteworthy topics as why we get songs stuck in our heads, why certain songs are equated with memories throughout our lives, and how our brain tends to know the next couple notes in a song even if we've never heard it before. All of these topics are augmented with thorough research and scientific explanations; yet, in a lamen's terms.

You don't have to be a musician to be interested in this read, you merely have to an inquiring person. If nothing else, you will learn facts which will impress your friends and perhaps win you that spot on your favorite trivia game show. One thing is for certain: you will never look at music the same way again.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,009 followers
February 10, 2017
Despite loving singing, and having been good enough to perform and not have people run away, I know very little about music. Not that Levitin would be a snob about that, from the sound of this book, but it still forms a bit of a barrier to understanding when someone starts talking about semitones. I can sing C on demand, and I know when something is out of tune — what more do you want? (Although unlike most people, I have a bad sense of timing, apparently: I routinely sing slower than the original version of anything I’m performing. Most people apparently preserve the timing of the version they know best. Trivia!)

So anyway, the music side of this passed me by, mostly, despite the primer in the opening chapters. But the neuroscience behind music is fascinating, and Levitin explains it well. There are a few sections which drag as he spends too long explaining things, but on the other hand he references a wide selection of music, applying what he’s talking about to songs people often know. (Which again led me to wishing I knew more music, but this time popular music — I think I got one out of every five references? And my acquaintance with Bowie is pretty darn recent.)

I feel like the best people to appreciate this have a bit more music theory and a bit less neuroscience in their background, but nonetheless, I found it an intriguing read.

Originally posted here.
Profile Image for Bill.
17 reviews4 followers
February 7, 2009
Someone left this behind in the cubby of the plane seat on a flight I took in December. As I'd finished my magazines, I picked it up, and then couldn't put it down. What was most fascinating about the book was the ease at which concepts I'd struggled with years ago were made crisp, clear, and, well, obvious, as they should have been back then. Introductory concepts of music were never made as clear to me than from this. I don't think I could have found a fuller survey of the subject, tying it to subjects I'm interested in (math, cognition) if I'd looked, and there it was, for free.

Surely an expert or someone who'd learned more of music or neuroscience would find it basic, but I'd recommend it for a good catchup on the subject and how our understanding of it is changing.
Profile Image for Jessica Leigh.
11 reviews3 followers
February 18, 2008
People often ask me about how I can be a musician and into sign language. It occurs for them like there is a dichotomy at play. I've never experienced my work in either area to be at odds with the other.

This week I'm reading the coolest book I've read in a while: This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin. He was once a musician and sound engineer, but now is a neuroscientist (another set of odd-bedfellow occupations). A Publishers Weekly review says "This is likely the only book whose jacket sports blurbs from both Oliver Sacks and Stevie Wonder." In the past few days he has enlightened me to myriad fascinating aspects of my relationship to music, both as a musician and as a human being.

My favorite among these revelations thus far is the following passage, which validates my feeling that signing and singing aren't so different, despite their apparent disparity:

"Most astonishing was that the left-hemisphere regions that we found were active in tracking musical structure were the very same ones that are active when deaf people are communicating by sign language. This suggested that what we had identified in the brain wasn't a region hat simply processed whether a chord sequence was sensible, or whether a spoken sentence was sensible. We were now looking at a region that responded to sight--to the visual organization of words conveyed through American Sign Language.

We found evidence for the existence of a brain region that processes structure in general, when that structure is conveyed over time. Although the inputs to this region must have come from different neural populationşand the outputs of it had to go through distinctive networks, there it was--a region that kept popping up in any task that involved organizing information over time."

Brains are neat, mine included.
Profile Image for Andrew.
297 reviews20 followers
December 26, 2009
I was going to keep reading this book until the new year, but I've decided to stop. I would think the combined topics of music and science would interest me, but it didn't, at least not in the way this author tackled it.

Being a musician and a music scholar myself, I disagree with some of his statements, many of which don't seem to be scientific and are based in opinion rather than fact. He asserts that most people can tell when two different instruments are being played simultaneously, but I know that sometimes two instruments played together can sound like one (like when a flute and oboe are played at the same time, it sounds like a unidentified wind instrument, and to the untrained ear, which is the intended audience for this book, the individual timbres may be undetectable). This is only one of the false, broad generalizations he constantly makes. He also insists that music theory and notation are needlessly complicated and intentionally designed so to confuse laymen, which I think is preposterous. Anyone can learn to read music.

I might have enjoyed the book more if I'd skipped the introductory lessons on basic music theory, but I wanted to see what he had to say about it. I'd be open to reading another book on the science of how we perceive music.
Profile Image for Alan-Without-Poe.
21 reviews7 followers
April 28, 2023
Yo no soy ningún experto en música. Tampoco soy un verdadero fanático, de esos que viajan kilómetros para asistir al concierto de su banda favorita. Lo que sí soy, como bien lo menciona el libro, es un experto en identificar lo que me gusta: la música me gusta. Y si tú como yo cree que una canción no consiste en más que unas notas aquí, otros acordes por allá, y unas pocas palabras puestas en determinado lugar, bueno, te haría bien leer este libro.

El libro está divido en dos partes: la primera de ellas en lecciones básicas (pero realizadas magistralmente) de conceptos musicales y de aquello que conforma la música: la segunda parte en cómo el cerebro reacciona a este estimulo de sonido, tanto cuando se hace como cuando sólo se escucha. Ambas partes son igualmente interesantes.

A mi parecer la primicia del libro es el concepto de EXPECTATIVA. Explica casi de inicio a final (aunque no exclusivamente) cómo el cerebro se las arregla para crear este concepto y cómo los músicos se aprovechan de ello para sus fines artísticos.

Ahora si me disculpan, seguiré escuchando algunas canciones de DAUGHTER bajo esta nueva refracción de pensamiento.
Profile Image for Mattie.
130 reviews5 followers
July 4, 2008
Really cool book on the the brain's relationship with and to music. Although written for a general audience, Levitan doesn't significantly dumb down or shy away from the neuroscience at the very heart of the book. At the same time, Levitan let's a very wry, witty sense of humor season his writing. Finally, he's got both the musical and scientific chops to understand the subject matter from both sides. This means there's enough science and detail to impart some pretty technical information, but its presented in a way that you don't have to be a brain surgeon to understand. What is particularly nice is that he also addresses the emotional quality of music, not just the mathematical/structural, in its relation to the brain. Fascinating stuff.
Profile Image for J.
12 reviews4 followers
December 27, 2007
Have you ever wondered how you can listen to an orchestra and pick out the melody, or pick out the violins from the whole ensemble, or pick out the first violin from the violin section, or separate the orchestra from the car alarm outside? If you ever wondered about music and why it is so appealing to us, you'll find this book interesting.

Beginning with the basics of how musicians and scientists define music, it moves on to discuss how our brain and mind have evolved to understand music, the impact that music has on all aspects of our nervous system, and the role music has played in unlocking the secrets of the brain. It gave me a new found appreciation for the human mind and its inner workings, especially with regard to something I've always taken for granted.
Profile Image for Sunny.
738 reviews36 followers
August 16, 2016
I have to admit that this took me a while to read because it got a bit too technical for me in the middle but the beginning and the ending were very very good. The book is about, as it says on the tin, the effect of music on the brain. The book gets quite scientific in places and reminded me of Doidge’s the brain that changes itself, which is a total must read. The book also looks at certain songs that have stood the test of time and explains why the human ear enamours itself to them and not to others. Daniel gives many examples of songs from the past and present ranging from jazz, or classic to hip hop to heavy metal and he highlights specific reasons why they are as classy as they are. Near the end the book talks about the psychology of music and why it is pertinent to us as humans and why we should listen to music because of the beneficial effects it can have on the physiology of our brains. It’s pretty much certain that excellence in music will lead to excellence in many other fields in life. There were a few really interesting things that came out of the book:
• Sounds are so important to us and help us understand reality but sometimes we just get it wrong. Hands up how many of you did the alphabet when you were young and genuinely thought there was a letter after “k” called “ellemenno”? Ok maybe you didn’t but I bet you are reciting the alphabet in your mind now around that letter :)
• Here is how a piano actually works if you ever wondered: keys to the left of a keyboard hit longer thicker strings while keys to the right hit thinner shorter strings. The vibrations of the strings causes them to nudge air molecules which vibrate at the same rate. These vibrating molecules reach our ears which cause our ear drums to wiggle in and out at the same frequency. That’s how we hear. :)
• Our memory system stores information about the relationship between objects and ideas but not necessarily details about the objects themselves. If you want to remember something try to create many associated tags and links to that object. The greater the number of meaningful links and tags the more you will remember about that object through the linking system.
The book had chapters on subjects such as: what is music? Foot tapping, anticipation, how do we categorise music, music emotion and the reptilian brain, what makes a musician, why do we like the music we like and the music instinct.
Profile Image for Reenie.
257 reviews14 followers
May 27, 2009
My boyfriend will be very glad that I'm done with this book, since I kept on complaining all the way through as I read it.

It definitely does have some interesting facts and ideas within it, so it's vaguely interesting, but more importantly, it's also profoundly irritating. At least for me. Partly due to some logical or factual errors or selective readings of data, and partly (or maybe mostly, come to think of it) due to something in the demeanour that comes across from the author. He's really bloody irritating, and I would have been more taken with the book if he'd just held off the name-dropping a little more.

Really. Francis Crick was freaking awesome, and potentially one of the smartest/most insightful scientists ever, but I don't really need to hear all about the 30 minute meeting you had with him once where you talked about your research on a field where he wasn't a particular expert. Especially not about what his hands looked like as he played with his dessert.

Actually, in other circumstances I really would like to hear about it, and I am really very jealous of people that did get to meet and talk with Crick, but the fact that one does talk with a genius does not endow your scientific endeavours with any greater meaning or truth. To borrow Levitin's tendency (which I did like) of illustrating with rock analogies, having talked with Jimi Hendrix about chord progressions does not make your bands' songs any more interesting or good, so shut up about that time you guys did heroin together, would you?

Okay, I'm rambling... in summary, for me this book definitely has some interesting ideas, but if you are going to read it, keep your skeptics society baseball cap firmly in place for the duration.
Profile Image for Andrew Ludke.
34 reviews12 followers
April 13, 2010
I read this after reading Oliver Sacks book "Musicophilia" and it is a great follow up. Did you know that what goes in the ear exists in the brain ... I mean really exists. If you hear a frequency of 440hz, an 'A' on the piano keyboard, there exists an electrical signal in your brain with a frequency of exactly 440Hz. Did you know that every natural tone rings a series of mathematically related tones called the overtone series. The relative volume of these overtones creates timbre. Timbre is what makes a trumpet sound like a trumpet and a piano sound like a piano even though they are both playing a 'A' 440. OK that's not such a stretch, but did you know that if we were to electronically remove one of the overtones, the first overtone is the octave or doubling so 880hz, you brain replaces the missing frequency. Think about that, what comes in the ear is unnaturally missing a frequency, but your brain replaces it ... through brain scans we see the 880hz added back in neurologically in the brain. You might say, wow humans are amazing creatures, but this is not solely a human capability. The same experiment was performed on a rabbit and the rabbit's brain also recognizes the discrepancy and compensates for it. OK now here's the really cool part. The experimenters to the signal being read back from brain scans and passed it through an audio amplified and finally to a speaker and the rabbits brain played back the missing frequency.
This book should be read by anyone curious about how and why music effects us so deeply and wants to know a little more about how this all works in the brain. I was sad to come to the last page ... like a hip new song, I wanted to play it again.
Profile Image for Robert Wechsler.
Author 11 books125 followers
May 30, 2018
A dense, sometimes wandering, very rewarding book about how we experience music. It’s as much about our brains as about music, and Levitin is knowledgeable and interesting on both. Exemplary nonfiction.
Profile Image for Camelia Rose.
650 reviews86 followers
October 4, 2020
"The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love apiece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives. Your brain on music is all about, as Francis Crick repeated as we left the lunchroom, connections."

I totally enjoyed This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, written by Daniel J. Levitin, a musician-and-producer-turned-psychologist-and-neuroscientist. In the first chapter, What is music?, the author defines a set of music terms such as pitch, timbre, tempo, rhythm, meter, each definition is musical, physical and psychological, and they can not be clearer!

Why one is often drawn to the music of one's youth? "Researchers point to the teen years as the turning point for musical preferences....There doesn't seem to be cutoff point for acquiring new tastes in music; but most people have formed their tastes by the age of eighteen or twenty. "

It is always the case that my opinion of an artwork is affected by my judgement of its creator. "Even when music doesn't transport us to an emotional place that is transcendent, music can change our mood. We might be understandably reluctant, then to let down our guard, to drop our emotional defenses, for just anyone. We will do so if the musicians and composers make us feel safe. We want to know that our vulnerability is not going to be exploited. This is part of the reason why so many people can't listen to Wagner. Due to his pernicious anti-Semitism, the sheer vulgarity of his mind (as Oliver Sacks describes it), and his music's associate with the Nazi regime, some people don't feel safe listening to his music. Wagner has always disturbed me profoundly, and not just his music, but also the idea of listening to it. I feel reluctant to give into the seduction of music created by so disturbed a mind and so dangerous (or impenetrably hard) a heart as his, for fear that I might develop some of the same ugly thoughts."

No, the author hasn't given a direct answer of why "Vincent" moves so many people, but I will never listen to "Chelsea Morning", "Refuge of the Roads" or "Stairways to Heaven" the same way again.
Profile Image for Mikael Lind.
174 reviews54 followers
March 29, 2013
I'm not sure if I'm happy with having read this book, i.e. if the read was time well spent or not. The book is far too long for its content, and a bit hit-and-miss. I couldn't really relate to many of the bands that Levitin was referring to (Sting, Eagles), except for some fun facts about the Beatles. Also, some of his personal anecdotes are really boring and didn't help explaining the topic he was discussing.

There's an annoying mind/brain dualism in this book. Despite discussing Wittgenstein in a part of the book, Levitin should study him more carefully next time and try to understand the point he was trying to make with his later philosophy. Levitin writes about pitch that it "is the end product of a chain of mental events that gives rise to an entirely subjective, internal mental representation or quality". I would say that this is wrong. First of all, pitch is partly the product of the frequency of the sound itself (the physical, out-there-in-the-world property). Second, pitch is not entirely subjective, since pitch is in a great extent part of a cultural heritage. He writes himself that "[f]or reasons that are largely cultural, we tend to associate major scales with happy or triumphant emotions, and minor scales with sad or defeated emotions." The pitches in a specific scale is largely a cultural product, but also depends on the intrinsic harmonious properties of the certain sounds themselves, such as overtones (how and how much is still a subject to debate). So the subjective, "mental" part of pitch is caught up in this inter-subjective reality, so to speak, even though there are idiosyncratic variations of pitch cognition between listeners.

Another example of Levitin's dualism is this: "Our brains can estimate the size of an enclosed space on the basis of the reverberation and echo present in the signal that hits our ears. Even though few of us understand the equations necessary to describe how one room differs from another, all of us can tell whether we're standing in a small, tiled bathroom, a medium-sized concert hall, or a large church with high ceilings." Of course, the computational process in the brain is a part of what makes it possible for us to experience different reverberation, but it is misleading to say that "we" don't learn about reverberational properties but our "brains" do. Certainly, after being exposed to different reverberation all your life, you learn how to distinguish between them; you know how your voice sounds when you're talking inside a church. When you experience a certain reverberation and understand it, then the reverberation that you are conscious of and the computational functions in your brain that make this experience possible, are not two different things but two sides of the same coin.

Levitin's attempt to explain why music moves us is slightly interesting, but, again, he confuses us with his dualism. "As the music unfolds, the brain constantly updates its estimates of when new beats will occur, and takes satisfaction in matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one, and takes delight when a skillful musician violates that expectation in an interesting way". What on earth do we make of this? Because our brains like it? This just creates another question; why do our "brains" like music - why does the cerebellum find "pleasure in adjusting itself to stay synchronized"? There's no "find pleasure" without a subject, but who is Levitin's subject? The brain? I would say this: Brains do not find pleasure in doing things, PEOPLE find pleasure in doing things! People like to have expectations about the music, people like to match rhythms and follow melodies. The brain is what makes our experience possible. It is not an aswer to the question "why do we like music?" to say "because the brain likes music!", because it just creates another question: "But why does the brain like music? Who is in the brain liking this music if not the person in which the brain is situated?" Levitin is not alone in presenting this flawed explanation; we see it everywhere in contemprary neuroscience.

It doesn't get better when Levitin tries to tackle complexity in music. To an adult, he says, there is music that is too simple to be challenging enough, so s/he will not like it so much. As the music gets more complex, s/he will like it more and more, but then there's a peak, a personal preference about how much complexity can be tolerated, and after that peak, the pleasure s/he gets from the music is falling again until the music is so complex that s/he will simply hate it. This is an inverted-U graph, Levitin tells us, is "intended to acount for [the] variable" why we might "like or dislike a piece of music ... because of its simplicity or complexity". I just want to say that the graph is simply wrong. Think about a beautiful fugue by Bach. Most people would like it a lot, and yet it is very complex. The reason is that people can like it DESPITE its complexity; i.e. you don't NEED to understand the complexity in order to like the piece. Still, it is also possible to penetrate the complexity and try to get a deeper understanding of the piece. There's pleasure on the surface as well as pleasure beneath it!

The final chapter about music and evolution is the most interesting one. I'm not sure I agree with Levitin when he says that a lot of birdsong is recursive; I would say that that statement is certainly a question that is still up for discussion. However, Levitin does pretty well in disproving Pinker's thesis that music has no adaptory function, and I would say that for those not interested in penetrating the whole book, the last chapter will probably do just fine on its own.

There are much better books on music out there. Anthony Storr's Music and the Mind is one, and also, half-way finished with Philip Ball's The Music Instinct, I would say that one is so far more substantial and less confusing.
Profile Image for Danielle.
525 reviews35 followers
November 21, 2021
This was technical and sadly boring. For a musician, you can skip the first 2 chapters, as it's just a recap of music definitions and explanations of how music works.
Profile Image for Tarek Amer.
51 reviews45 followers
October 15, 2018
-When basic elements of sound combine in a meaningful way,it gives rise to music.
-Most theories believe music has an evolutionary basis.In order to sing and dance well, you must be mentally and physically fit.It is so deep-rooted in us that it may have helped our pre-human ancestors learn to speak.
-Processing music involves almost every region of the brain that we know of.
-Appreciation of music is linked to the brain's ability to predict what will come next, and a good composer controls these musical expectations.
-Songs can act as keys to memories, because people use the same brain regions for remembering as they do for perceiving music.
-Musical expertise comes first from a combination of practice genetic predispositions.
-Music preference begins with the music we're exposed to.We choose music we're familiar with.In one study, pregnant women were assigned a specific song to listen to on a regular basis. A year after the babies were born, the researchers played the babies both the assigned song and another song, to see if they showed any preference. Sure enough, they wanted to keep listening to the song they had heard in the womb.
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