This Is Your Brain On Music

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What People Are Saying

  • "Endlessly stimulating, a marvelous overview, and one which only a deeply musical neuroscientist could give. Daniel Levitin has a huge knowledge of music developed since the 1950s (and of Blues, Jazz, and etc. before this), and not merely a formal but a deep personal knowledge as an expert performer no less than as a listener. I liked the discussion of 'safe' and 'dangerous' music, and I very much liked the final chapter on the evolutionary origins of music. An important book."

    ——— Oliver Sacks, M.D.

  • "A dissection of music perception and creation that starts slowly and inexorably builds to a grand finish. I loved reading that listening to music coordinates more disparate parts of the brain than almost anything else--and playing music uses even more! Despite illuminating a lot of what goes on this book doesn't "spoil" enjoyment- it only deepens the beautiful mystery that is music."

    ——— David Byrne

  • "Brilliant."

    ——— Sunday Times of London

  • "Levitin has a real flair for analogy. His dual background adds to the fun."

    ——— Nature

  • "A layperson's guide to the emerging neuroscience of music. Dr. Levitin is an unusually deft interpreter, full of striking scientific trivia. Levitin is a cognitive psychologist who runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal, perhaps the world's leading lab in probing why music has such an intense effect on us."

    ——— The New York Times

  • "Levitin is a deft and patient explainer of the basics for the non-scientist as well as the non-musician. . . Aimed squarely at the general reader, "This Is Your Brain on Music" successfully unravels some of that long chain of neural events without getting tangled up in it. . . Levitin helps quantify some of music's magic without breaking its spell."

    ——— The Los Angeles Times

  • "Artful and elegant. Simultaneously scientist, music professional and seductively graceful writer, Levitin gets to the very crux of the truth-is- beauty equation that the mystery of music represents. No other book comes close."

    ——— Sandy Pearlman

  • "A fascinating subject, compellingly treated."

    ——— Keith Lockhart

  • "Levitin's lucid explanation of why music is important to us is essential reading for creative musicians and scholars. I've been waiting for years for a book like this."

    ——— Jon Appelton

  • "I take my hat off to anyone who tackles the Ramones, the Beatles, and Beethoven's Sixth Symphony in the same breath. With insight, empathy and humor, Dan Levitin addresses age-old questions about the overwhelming role of music in our existence - and this without diminishing the ever-elusive wonder of musical communication and perception. An important achievement."

    ——— Matt Haimovitz

  • "This broad, deep, and entertaining book, written by the only person I know who is uniquely qualified to write it, is certain to delight and challenge any lover of music."

    ——— Perry R. Cook

  • "This volume is a beautiful integration of art and science applied to understanding music. Scientific readers will appreciate the effort to explore the neural networks that underlie musical processing, the mental operations involved and the links to genes and evolution written in a fashion that is both informative and a pleasure to read."

    ——— Michael I. Posner

  • "[Levitin] brings a rare mixture of street and lab cred together in this accessible and fascinating book on the cutting edge of music psychology. . .At the edges of pop-music savvy and experimental precision, Levitin brings empiricism to the heart of the beat . . .Your Brain On Music takes the reader to unexpected places."

    ——— David Rothenberg

  • "Composer John Cage called music "a means of rapid transportation." Certainly, nothing pierces our sensibility as instantly as an evocative tune. Nobody knows that better than psychologist Dr. Daniel J. Levitin, who runs McGill University's Levitin Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise. This Is Your Brain on Music explores humankind's unique connection to sounds that speak to us even when words fail."

    ——— Barnes & Noble Booksellers

  • "Both impressively scholarly and readily accessible to lay readers. 'This Is Your Brain on Music' segues deftly from a crash course in pitch, timbre, tempo, melody , and other music characteristics to the electrochemical processes of the brain and the elucidation of such topics as 'ear worms,' those insipid jingles and pop songs that get infuriatingly stuck in our heads. A compelling read even for those of us for whom neuroscience remains as baffling as, well, brain surgery."

    ——— The Boston Globe

  • "The goal of musical performance is to unite artist and audience in a common experience. Levitin's writing aims for a similar convergence. Setting jargon aside in favor of everyday terminology, he gives readers enough background to understand what to listen for in music and to connect what they hear to his science. Readers, with Levitin, leap from the experience of music to . . . plunge beneath the thinking mind into the living brain, discovering how responses to music arise from the physical structure and electrochemical activity of the most primitive and the most highly evolved subsystems of that remarkable organ."

    ——— Seattle Times

  • "In a book brimming with scientific research and musical references, Levitin skillfully investigates our profoundly human love of music."

    ——— Paste Magazine

  • "Every musician, at whatever level of skill, should read this book. And that means all of us."

    ——— Howie Klein

  • "Dan has struck a chord, a harmony of all cultures, informing all who care about music and the experience we all share. I now more fully understand some of my 'intuitive' moves, and appreciate the way Dan presents the facts, sautÈed with a bit of humor. A really good book for anyone who cares about music, poetry and art. This is a book that matters."

    ——— Don DeVito

  • "Daniel Levitin writes in a spirit reminiscent of Douglas Hofstadter's now classic Gödel, Escher, Bach or Andy Clark's Being There - making the difficult transition from technical reflection on the minutiae of cognitive science to an engaging account of the mind at work look easy."

    ——— Essays in Philosophy

  • "...offer[s] keen insights on the relation between mind and melody."

    ——— Scientific American Book Club

  • "The questions he asks are very very musical, very concerned with the fact that music is an art that we interact with, not just a bunch of noises."

    ——— Rita Aiello

  • "Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin's wonderful new book explains why music is a critical step in human evolution and why the songs we loved as teens remain stuck on 'play' in our heads...This Is Your Brain on Music is delightful. Levitin explains the intricacies of two difficult subjects—neuroscience and music theory—without ever losing the reader."

    ——— Salon Magazine

  • "Fascinating . . . and valuable on many levels."

    ——— Paul Lehrman, Mix Magazine

  • "A remarkable achievement . . . provides a compelling and lucid overview of important developments in the science of music . . . truly has a sense of the excitement and inspiration surrounding the research."

    ——— Frank Russo

  • "Levitin has produced a book wonderfully accessible to lay readers. Levitin has a good sense of humor and is a genial explainer. 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. The final chapter 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 Commercial Dispatch

  • "Some scientists have the gift of writing so clearly that it's like being taken backstage by a magician and shown all the tricks-oh, that's how it's done. Daniel J. Levitin writes lucidly and humorously . . . absolutely fascinating."

    ——— Cincinnati Public Library

  • "Levitin's enlightening work is worthwhile reading for any music lover."

    ——— Grass Valley, California Union-Prospector

  • "In Dan Levitin, readers could not ask for a more understanding, amusing, accessible and lively guide. It's impossible to read this book and not learn something that will advance an understanding of and love for music, regardless of genre."

    ——— Hamptons Independent Newspaper

  • "One of those books you can't put down . . . Should be on every engineer's shelf."


  • "Whether you're a musician or a scientist (or both, or neither), Levitin's enthusiastic, accessible prose will lead you through the complexities of both fields with ease."

    ——— NYU ScienceLine

  • "Levitin illustrates how music beats at the very heart of our evolution. He does it in such a way as to open your ears afresh to familiar tunes and he helps you discover new ones."

    ——— Metro Scotland

  • "An absorbing examination of the mechanics of why music affects us the way it does."

    ——— Sunday Business Post (Ireland)

  • "Unlike other books on the issue, This Is Your Brain manages a chatty, informal tone without ever patronising the reader with oversimplification, while also steering clear of baffling the enthusiast with complex terminology."

    ——— Oxford (U.K.) Times, and Blackpool Gazette

  • "A super intelligent scientist, his gift for explaining complex brain functions is perhaps even more impressive."

    ——— Western Daily Press and Burton Mail (UK)

  • "A valuable resource into the study of the relationship of the human brain and music."

    ——— South Wales Argus

  • "If music is the voice of the culture, than Levitin is both its Talmudic scholar and scientist. This is Your Brain on Music is a gem. It contains a language with which to write about music. It cracks an egg over a frying pan, heats it over a flame and serves it to the reader. Except instead of showing said egg to the audience and intoning that "this is your brain on drugs," he straps headphones to the scrambled eggs and cranks up The Clash until breakfast explodes."

    ——— Undress Me Robot

  • "A marvellous book."


  • "Examines the neuroscience of music in layperson's terms - no mean feat, given how many lay people may balk at the idea of reading about neuroscience for pleasure. Yet Levitin draws you in . . . with his personal passion for music."

    ——— The Irish Examiner

  • "He most certainly knows his onions, as a music lover and as a super intelligent scientist."

    ——— East Anglian Daily Times

  • "Levitin, a sound engineer turned chirpy academic, helpfully word-hums for us in this ambitious and worthwhile round-up of current thought on humans' physiological, psychological and social relationship with music...intriguing cae studies...concisely explained hard facts and smartly argued work-in-progress theories."

    ——— TIme Out London

  • "Even the tone deaf will be enthralled."

    ——— The Guardian (U.K.)

  • "...writes with catchy enthusiasm and has a knack of couching complex ideas in user-friendly language...a delightfully informative read."

    ——— Classic FM Magazine (U.K.)

  • "Levitin presents full, beautifully organized details in lively, clear prose, well-sprinkled with pointed anecdotes and musical examples that you'll recognize whatever your musical tastes. He neither dumbs it down nor floats into academic obscurity."

    ——— Now Toronto Magazine

  • "Explains the connection between the brain and music in a short book that readers won't need a doctorate to understand. One of the leading researchers of music cognition in the world, he can talk you under the table about the Beatles, from the perspective of an avid, but not pretentious fan."

    ——— Montreal Gazette

  • "A compelling read, peppered with extraordinary personal encounters."

    ——— Stanford Magazine

  • "A fascinating, lively and clear-headed wilderness adventure of a volume."

    ——— Nashville Scene Magazine

  • "How we receive music, why it moves us, delights us and induces certain behavior in us. Levitin is in an excellent position to know as a musician and cognitive neuroscientist."

    ——— Bob Edwards (Public Radio International and XM Satellite Radio)

  • "All about music's effect and the neuroscience behind music, takes us from Bach to Count Basie to Van Halen to Eminem as we gain a greater understanding of the science of music."

    ——— Forum with Michael Krasny, KQED Radio San Francisco

  • "An accessible introduction to the science of music."

    ——— Bravo! TV, "Arts & Minds"

  • "A scientific exploration into the way music arouses and plays with expectations, memory and emotion. Provides insights into brain structure and function and the neuroscience of sound."

    ——— Leonard Lopate, WNYC Radio New York

  • "Gracefully written, pitched at general audiences and note-perfect."

    ——— Brain

  • "Interesting and stimulating. Very clear and well-informed explanations of a range of musical phenomena, their underlying psychological processes and possible neural correlates."

    ——— Times Higher Education, 2008

  • "Fantastically interesting . . . with a light touch that doesn't betray the complexity of [the] subject."

    ——— Sunday Herald (London)

  • "It is fascinating to read about the things that some composers consider when they sit down to write."

    ——— Shropshire Star (UK)

  • "Celebrates a capacity for analysing and understanding music . . . Listening to music . . . causes every part of the brain to get fired up. Here is a book to do the same."

    ——— The Independent on Sunday (London)

  • "An essential tool for any music lover. Illuminates in a new way something we all feel: Music is an intrinsic and vital piece of human existence."

    ——— ASCAP Playback

  • "A pioneering study."

    ——— Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies


  • 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.

    ——— Publishers Weekly

  • With a neuroscientist’s conviction that the as-yet inexplicable is just shadows and dust and cryptic meaning, Daniel Levitin sets out to explain why collections of easily-recognisable sounds have such a profound impact on our emotions, revealing for us the mechanisms behind the magic.

    He has been publicly lauded in his endeavour by serious backers, from the polymath Brian Appleyard in The Times, to philosopher (and now also music author) Oliver Sacks, to David Byrne of Talking Heads. And it’s obvious why.

    Levitin himself achieves the almost-impossible, discussing the ultratechnical – in two subjects – in the least affected manner imaginable, using music to tell us about the brain, and the brain to teach us more about music.

    A record producer – with Stevie Wonder, Santana, Clapton and others – before he turned to science, Levitin takes evident delight in pairing off Mozart and Madonna, Liszt and Ludacris, to demonstrate the fundamental truths underlying all music. And in case any of those names is unfamiliar, every example cited is generously made available for audio-reference on Levitin’s site:

    From his incisive definitions of music’s building blocks to his differentiation between music as science and music as human experience, a clear elegance runs throughout Levitin’s writing, whether he is discussing how the number of potential thoughts in a brain is greater than the number of particles in the universe (enabling us to make such varied music from only 12 notes), or illustrating his arguments with wonderful trivia: a tree falling in an empty wood actually doesn’t make a sound (it merely creates vibrations, which aren’t sounds until someone ‘hears’ them).

    Many questions in musical neuroscience haven’t been solved, like why a perfect fifth sounds so ‘perfect’, or why loud music creates such a physical thrill. But in this book Levitin isn’t trying to answer every question; he’s attempting to narrow the (popularly perceived) gap between regular Joes and musicologists.

    In Africa, there are professional musicians, sure enough; but people think you’re very odd if you say you can’t sing or (trust me!) won’t dance. They believe these functions to be intuitively the same, and hardwired, from deep evolutionary/sexual and cultural origins.

    Levitin does too, and says the average person has more musical ability than is often believed: even the minimally-trained ear expects the 7th to resolve to the 8ve, and can immediately distinguish between Dylan acoustic and Dylan electric. Most people are at least expert listeners of music, and they should be: Americans spend more money on music than on prescription drugs.

    Ultimately, contrary to the notion of musical ‘gift’, Levitin argues that, even for the likes of the young Mozart, genetic propensity only gets you about halfway; the rest is environment and hard work.

    Very few people could have written this book at all, let alone so deftly. A relaxed blend of arts and science, This Is Your Brain On Music is no quick read, but it is certainly a very enjoyable one. How often do you get to say that about a book on neuroscience?!

    ——— Music Teacher Magazine

  • A neuroscientist with a rich musical background explains what is being learned through research about music and the mind. Levitin, a former record producer, now director of the Levitin Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, sees music as a window into the essence of human nature. To bring the uninitiated up to speed, he devotes his opening chapters to answering the question of what music is, covering rhythm, meter, tempo, loudness and harmony, as well as providing basic information about the workings of the human brain. Levitin describes recent studies, some but not all at his own laboratory, that seek answers to questions about the brain mechanisms underlying emotion and memories associated with music. Noting that there is no single music center in the brain, he recounts how listening to music causes a number of brain regions, from the oldest and most primitive to the newest and as far apart as the frontal lobes and the cerebellum at the back of the brain, to be activated in a particular order. Levitin also considers the neurobehavioral basis of musical expertise; the origins of particular musical preferences; and the evolution of music. Taking issue with Steven Pinker's assertion that music is but an evolutionary accident piggybacking on language, Levitin cogently presents arguments for music's primacy in human history. Two appendixes provide additional information on the processing of music in the brain and on musical chords. The author displays an easy familiarity with a wide range of musical genres and the characteristics of numerous musical instruments and performers' voices. He draws his explanatory examples from jazz, rock-'n'-roll,classical music, nursery and folk songs, and musical theater, to name but a few, tossing in references to the Beatles and Beethoven, Joni Mitchell and Bach, Frank Sinatra and Sousa. Levitin makes the science of music readily understandable to the non-scientist and non-musician alike.

    ——— Kirkus Magazine

  • How the brain processes all aspects of music is the subject of this book rooted in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and the evolution of the brain. Levitin starts with how the ear perceives sound vibrations--signals are processed in the brain's auditory cortex--and proceeds to the perception of frequencies, scales, and timbre, coupled with rhythm and tempo, exploring them within cultural context. Music triggers emotional responses, which, in interaction with the perceptions, are transmitted throughout the brain, eliciting responses colored by the personal likes and dislikes that have developed as the brain has grown. Levitin, first a musician and recording producer, is now a neuroscientist teaching the psychology of electronic communications at McGill University, and he draws many examples of how the brain receives and processes various inputs, including visual and aural, from art and classical and popular music. His book introduces the inner workings of the brain insofar as scientists understand it and affords a good first look at the subject for armchair psychologists and neuroscientists.

    ——— Booklist

  • Neuroscientist and former record producer Daniel J. Levitin explores the connection between music and the mind in This Is Your Brain on Music , a fascinating overview exploring the significance of music in shaping our lives. The author examines such mysteries as how our musical preferences begin to form while we're in utero, as well as how our ability to recognize new songs is beyond the capability of the most advanced computer. >From the way we categorize music to what makes a musician to why we like the music we like, Levitin's enlightening work is worthwhile reading for any music lover.

    ——— Pages

  • In this exploration of the brain-music relationship, musician and neuroscientist Levitin, who heads the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, begins by defining and explaining musical terms. Lay readers can take these chapters as reference material; musicians and scientists will grasp the apparatus of organized sound, hearing, and brain function, structured in detail with examples ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach to the Beatles. Following that material is an explanation of how music arouses and plays with expectations, creates tension and resolution, and provides insights into brain structure and function. Levitin concludes with three delightful chapters: "What Makes a Musician?" (10,000 hours of practice), "My Favorite Things" (why we like what we like), and "The Music Instinct," in which he argues - against experimental psychologist Steven Pinker - that music plays a role in evolution (singers and dancers are perceived as being more attractive as mates). In Levitin's study, current brain research becomes comprehensible through music - a wonderful accomplishment. Along with Anthony Storr's Music and the Mind and Kathleen Marie Higgins's The Music of Our Lives, this book extends the appreciation of music as neural training. Essential for most libraries.

    ——— Library Journal

  • Why we prefer one song to another, like so much else, is pretty damn complicated. For Daniel Levitin, the complex relationship between music and the mind has been a lifelong obsession. Levitin started out as a music fan, then joined a rock band, later became a successful producer, and finally made himself into a world-renowned neuroscientist. In all these roles, Levitin has asked a simple question: "Why do some songs move us so and others leave us cold?" The answer leads Levitin to explore what music is, and how it gets processed in the human mind. Our reactions to songs, summarizes Levitin, are the result of an amazingly intricate relationship between nature (how our brains are hard-wired) and nurture (the musical culture we absorb). We approach songs with a set of expectations, says Levitin, and "[s]ongs that we keep coming back to for years play around with [these] expectations." In a book brimming with scientific research and musical references, Levitin skillfully investigates our profoundly human love of music.

    ——— Paste Magazine

  • Why you can't get that song out of your head

    By Mark Coleman, Mark Coleman is the author of "Playback: From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years of Music, Machines, and Money."

    Listening to music has long been heralded as a gateway to the mystical, a relatively cheap and easy transcendent experience. Subjecting this magical and intimate pursuit to scientific inquiry can seem reductive or even clueless, at least to some among the aesthetically minded. One school of thought in neuroscience actually deems music unworthy of serious study, dismissing it as a sort of cerebral indulgence or audio cheesecake. Author Daniel J. Levitin challenges these perceptions in "This Is Your Brain on Music."

    Levitin, a professor of cognitive psychology at McGill University in Montreal, insists that appreciation of music and dedication to science go hand in hand, citing his pre-academic background as a musician, recording engineer and record producer by way of example. At the same time, he explores philosophical questions raised by his research on music and the brain, even offering a matter-of-fact solution to Irish philosopher George Berkeley's famous conundrum: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? "Simply, no," Levitin writes. "[S]ound is a mental image created by the brain in response to vibrating molecules."

    Think about that for a minute. What comes through our eardrums when we hear music are vibrations, flutters and fluctuations around a tiny membrane in our ear. "Sound waves impinge on the eardrums and pinnae (the fleshy parts of your ear)," Levitin notes, "setting off a chain of mechanical and neurochemical events" whose end product is "an internal mental image that we call pitch." That means "there can be no pitch without a human or animal present. A suitable measuring device can register the frequency made by the tree falling, but it is not pitch unless and until it is heard."

    So although we create a kind of internal music as we perceive sounds in the world around us, we don't really "hear" this music in our heads. Instead it's a neurological simulation, a mirror image drawn largely from the multilayered workings of memory. And unlike the fastest computer microprocessor, our brain performs its myriad tasks simultaneously.

    Levitin is a deft and patient explainer of the basics for the non-scientist as well as the non-musician. This reader sighed with relief when the author paused to remind me that neurons are the primary cells of the brain and synapses are spaces between neurons and when he underscored how clusters of neurons form specialized networks in the brain. Aimed squarely at the general reader, "This Is Your Brain on Music" successfully unravels some of that long chain of neural events without getting tangled up in it.

    Perhaps Levitin's most fundamental and surprising observation is how much we know intuitively about music, its structures, forms and logic. We can recognize a song's chords - in the absence of its melody - because they're familiar groupings of notes (or pitches) ordered in a familiar pattern, following a path (or scale) guided by a key (or fundamental) note.

    Levitin points out that the Eagles "don't have to play more than three chords before thousands of non-musician fans in the audience know they are going to play 'Hotel California.' And even as they have changed the instrumentation over the years, from electric to acoustic guitars, from twelve-string to six-string guitars, people recognize those chords; we even recognize them when they're played by an orchestra ” in a Muzak version in the dentist's office."

    Even those who can't find middle C on a piano and aren't Eagles fans somehow can sense what should come next. The reason, Levitin says, is that "[n]etworks of neurons ” form abstract representations of musical structure and musical rules, something that they do automatically and without our conscious awareness."

    Levitin's research occurs at the intersection of neurology (brain science) and psychology (mind study). By his own admission, he's more of a mind guy than a brain dude. Yet its necessary focus on laboratory experiments renders his book far more controlled and clinical in the telling than, say, Oliver Sacks' elegant, evocative case histories. In the absence of a unifying theory as in Malcolm Gladwell's "Tipping Point" or a conceptual hook as in "Freakonomics" by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Levitin's book demands a reasonable level of reader interest in the subject. (Frankly, the author is better at breezing through Music Theory 101 or Brain Chemistry for Dummies than at keeping a personal anecdote on the leash.)

    Although Levitin's narrative grasp may be shaky, the arc of his transformation from musician to scientist grounds his thinking and guides his treatise to a satisfying conclusion. Drawing on his recording-studio experience, he displays a winning sense of humor about himself and the pop music business. He presents a mathematical basis for why clarinets sound a little odd, declares that "all accordions sound alike" and affectionately corrects the Ramones' use of the word "cerebellum" in "Teenage Lobotomy." The musical examples he cites are superbly illustrative and readily accessible.

    At its best, "This Is Your Brain on Music" provides a wealth of what psychologists call declarative knowledge, the ability to describe what we know, in this case something we've all known since childhood - precisely what it is we like about music. Parents of a certain age will nod sagely, involuntarily humming the "SpongeBob SquarePants" theme as they read that by age 5 children "have learned to recognize chord progressions in the music of their culture." By 10 or 11, many "take on music as a real interest, even those children who didn't express such an interest in music earlier," Levitin writes. And it's no coincidence that most people have formed their musical taste by 18 or 20, at the end of adolescence, "the formative phase when our neural circuits become structured out of our experiences." That's why as adults, "the music we tend to be nostalgic for, the music that feels like it is 'our' music, corresponds to [what] we heard during these years."

    Levitin offers a haunting and perhaps comforting aside: One thing people with Alzheimer's will often remember is their favorite music from age 14.

    The human brain can't play back endless scenes from childhood, but our favorite songs function as cues, keys that unlock more complex memories. By tracking music's deep ties to memory, Levitin helps quantify some of music's magic without breaking its spell.

    ——— Los Angeles Times

  • A revelation for music buffs and science geeks - and all the better if you happen to be both. How do memory and music work together? What makes timbre? How do writers like Lennon and McCartney, or John Coltrane and Miles Davis, manipulate our expectations to create truly original compositions? Why do some melodies elicit consistent emotional responses across cultures, race, gender, and age? Before he became a neuroscientist, Daniel J. Levitin was a music producer and professional musician. This Is Your Brain on Music connects those two worlds, of music production and reception, with ear-opening results.

    ——— "Staff Picks," Recommended by Dave,

  • When your favorite song starts blasting from your speakers, what's going through your mind? We don't mean, "Gee, this guitar solo rocks!" Instead, what's happening in your brain, on the level of neurons? That's the central question Daniel Levitin addresses in This Is Your Brain on Music. A neuroscientist and a musician, Levitin draws upon insights in both fields to offer keen insights on the relation between mind and melody. Levitin's narrative ranges as widely as the notes on a piano keyboard. We begin by exploring the specifics of pitch, timbre, rhythm, and other universal features of music. We then segue into discussions of such topics as musical anticipation (e.g., Beethoven's "Path»tique Sonata" and the Beatles song "For No One" both play off our expectations of which notes should follow a particular sequence) and tune recognition (e.g., our brains recognize the familiar melody of "Happy Birthday" no matter how loudly, how fast, or in what key it's sung-a feat computers can't match). The author shares conclusions from his own research, including the revelation that the cerebellum plays a role in helping performers and conductors keep track of musical time and maintain a constant tempo. As for the emotional response music evokes, Levitin's studies confirmed that listening to music causes a cascade of brain regions to be activated in a particular order: first, the auditory cortex; next, frontal regions involved in processing musical structure; finally, the mesolimbic system, involved in arousal and pleasure. As a finale, Levitin asks why music evolved at all. Although some neuroscientists believe music lacks any evolutionary basis, others argue that music's function in developing children is to help prepare their minds for a number of complex cognitive and social activities, including understanding the nuances of language. There's also the chance that music preferences are shaped in utero. If you think science has little to say about our perception of music, This Is Your Brain on Music is bound to change your tune.

    ——— Scientific American Bookclub (Selection of the Month)

  • There is evidence that music of one form or another has been an integral part of human culture since its beginnings. That tradition continues in all cultures, writes Levitin, a neuroscientist with a background in music production and performance. Here, he reviews the science behind many people's obsession with music, how music is able to convey and conjure up emotion, how it is processed by the brain, and how even the musical novice has an inherent ability to recognize musical features such as key, meter, and timbre. Levitin begins by defining music, explaining how its pitches have remained essentially the same since the time of the Greeks and how instruments have been invented to expand available sounds. He ponders people's remarkable memory for music, an ability that can occasionally be burdensome: when you can't get that stupid jingle out of your head. He looks at how expert musicians are different from casual listeners and considers whether musical ability is partially genetic. Music, Levitin writes, lies at the heart of human nature.

    ——— Science News

  • This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
    Categories: Staff Picks , Nonfiction

    Some scientists have the gift of writing so clearly that it's like being taken backstage by a magician and shown all the tricks-oh, that's how it's done. I heard Daniel J. Levitin on the Diane Rehm Show a few weeks ago and was impressed by how well he described his new book, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, and when I picked up a copy, I was delighted to find that he writes just as lucidly and humorously as he talks. Levitin is a cognitive neuroscientist ("the field that is the intersection of psychology and neurology") and musician who studies how and why the human brain makes and appreciates music. Levitin's research at McGill University asks fascinating questions like, why do we find music emotionally moving? Why do we all have different musical tastes? Why do we find ourselves driven crazy by a musical phrase that we can't get out of our head? (Those are called "ear worms," by the way.) What parts of the brain come into play when we listen to or play music? Why do some people have perfect pitch? How much of music appreciation is culturally based? And why can a human being instantly recognize a song transposed to another key, but a computer can't? After explaining the basic elements of music (pitch, rhythm, tempo, contour, timbre, loudness, spatial location, reverberation) as well as concepts like meter, key, melody and harmony with admirable clarity, Levitin goes on to review the current state of research and theory of mind and brain as it may help explain the human obsession with music. It's absolutely fascinating. And the book will probably send you back to the library shelves for some of the music Levitin discusses so knowledgeably and enticingly.

    ——— Cincinnati Public Library

  • Telescopes of the Mind

    While the politics of the last decade have been abysmal, in the world of the study of the mind, it has been an exciting era. The improvements in medical imaging have created telescopes of the mind, and with them a generation which will be remembered for opening the study of the brain and its myriad ways of functioning. Just as naked eye astronomy was made virtually obsolete by telescopes, so will most of what we call philosophy and psychology today live on as historical names and picturesque terminology in a world that has left them behind. Dr. Levitin's work is, without exaggeration, pioneering. His book This Is Your Brain on Music is a good simple introduction to why music in particular is going to be reshaped by this new science.

    Let us start with the basic idea - that there is a correspondence between brain activity, and localization. We know this is both true and also untrue, the brain rewires itself, and different people process in different ways, including sex differences, age differences and so on. But still, there is a strong localization of similar mental mechanisms. By observing brain activity, we begin to map the centers that are related to external behavior. So by looking at someone listening to music, which is an activity with an external label, we can see how the brain internally divides up the work.

    Pre-imaging philosophy and psychology attempted to match external categories of behavior with externally defined categories of cognition. This process was hit or miss, the way using external traits of two organisms is a hit or miss way of determining how closely related they are. While our telescopes of the mind are, in their own ways, as primitive as the first astronomical telescopes, the same kind of world shaking insights are possible.

    In the world of astronomy, the first casualty was the geocentric model of the universe - that is, the world stays put, and everything else spins around it once a day, while the sun and planets orbit around the earth. In the world of music, the casualties are going to be as big. One of the biggest is "there is no music, only sound" that dogma of the post-modern. There is music, and it is not merely sound.

    Dr. Levitin is also studying, not just music in general, but pop music in particular. In academic circles pop music has always been treated as the poor cousin of composed or complex music. It would be like judging film by the standards of theatre, of course film isn't theatre, and of course pop music isn't about the same things that acoustically based music is about.

    The essential difference according to Levitin is that pop music is more about timbre - that is the specific qualities of an instrument or sound patch or voice, and less about the structure of harmony, rhythm and melody. This should make sense, a recording artist is producing a finished product, like a painting, which is the work of art itself. The specific riffs, harmonies and so on are the brushwork that creates it, not the substance of the work itself:

    For his first experiment he came up with an elegant concept: He stopped people on the street and asked them to sing, entirely from memory, one of their favorite hit songs. The results were astonishingly accurate. Most people could hit the tempo of the original song within a four-percent margin of error, and two-thirds sang within a semitone of the original pitch, a level of accuracy that wouldn't embarrass a pro.

    Note his emphasis on matching the original closely as being the important mark. For a classical work, intonation is important, but not matching the intonation of another performance. The reason for this, not in Levitin's book, is that acoustical music is about taking gestures - things people can do - and combining them into effects, and then decomposing those effects into other, related,. gestures. The fugue and the sonata are both different ways of building up and transforming gestures. Gestures are not as important when the final surface is the intention, instead, it is achieving, and maintaining, a particular "sound". Dr. Levitin focuses on what makes a "sound" because that "sound" is everything. For a classical composer, having a sensitive ear is the ability to pick apart a work as it is played or realize its harmony from the score, for a pop person, recognizing the decay of sound from multi-generation tapes (as the article mentions) or being able to hear the possibilities of a particular sound are important.

    There's another reason to read Dr. Levitin's book - the ideas he is pursuing were called crazy once, and still, by the musical establishment. And yet, brick by brick, the overwhelming wave of evidence piles up, and a new light shines into the world.

    ——— The Agonist

  • Get this mine yesterday! This is one of those books you can't put down once you start reading. Levitin's writing is modest, not grossly vague or misleading, subjective yet most readers in will find interesting. For example, an interesting passage "I learned to hear things I had never heard before: the difference between one microphone and another, even between one brand of recording tape and another (Ampex 456 tape had a characteristic crispness in the high frequencies, and Agfa 467 a luster in the midrange). Once I knew what to listen for, I could tell Ampex from Scotch or Agfa tape as easily as I could tell an apple from a pear or an orange." Most engineers will automatically understand this effect but statements like the above are expanded to advance brain function concepts later in the book. Should be on every engineer's shelf.