Neurons in harmony

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human ObsessionThis Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hard to believe, but this book is as good as its blurbs. Levitin is both a musician and a neuroscientist, who got into the science to understand better the music he was playing or engineering for rock bands. He knows far more music than I do, drawing on all genres to illustrate what it does, how it does it and why it matters. "Musical activity involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem." (pp. 85-86) And, he argues (against Pinker and other skeptics), it is not a superfluous byproduct of evolution, but has been essential to our survival and most probably, as Darwin himself believed, is even older than language.

Just how do we remember songs, even when the pitch, rhythm and timbre are all altered? And just what are pitch, rhythm and timbre, and how do they affect our brains? And why do you like heavy metal (or whatever you like), while I … well, many other things? These are just some of the mysteries that scientists are beginning to solve.

And what must occur in the brain for a musician to achieve full physical skill (of voice, strings, horn, whatever) and sensibility? It takes at least 10,000 hours of practice, says Levitin, for the brain to achieve complete mastery of anything (auto mechanics, fiction writing, musical composition or performance, or anything else). "Although people differ in how long it takes them to consolidate information neurally, it remains true that increased practice leads to a greater number of neural traces, which can combine to create a stronger memory representation." (p. 197) Talent — a genetic predisposition, that difference in learning time he mentions — is a big help, but it's not enough without practice.

Levitin's style is lively, his examples well chosen (even though I didn't recognize all the music he expected me to know), and his openness to examining contrary hypotheses makes him a credible guide. I especially appreciated his comments on performance and how a musician learns new pieces, by "chunking" — that is, learning whole groups or sequences of chords, melodies, etc. rather than all the individual notes a beginning piano player struggles to memorize. And best of all, the sheer emotion of listening and playing. That's what I want to hold on to as I get back to practicing. And I now have a clearer idea of the "schema" to listen for in classic jazz (I sort of knew, but never had it explained before) and how to appreciate the clever transformation Mahler achieves in his Fifth, or what and how Joni Mitchell accomplishes with her alternative guitar tunings.

So why four and not five stars? My very personal reaction: the first couple of chapters were too cute and anecdotal, an unnecessary (for me) warm-up for the truly informative, analytical stuff to come. But if you've never thought much about notes or scales or timbre, maybe you'll need that.

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Unknown said...

thoroughly agree with you! found it inspirational -- one of best books i've read in last 5 years! incidentally, just acquired a cassio keyboard -- have never mastered any instrument, but it's lots of fun fooling around on tin whistle, variety of hand drums, singing, and now this!

éva said...

oops, forgot to sign my comment (not quite accustomed to this communication mode)!

gef said...

Glad to hear from you, Éva — even anonymously.