When it comes to music, I know what I like. Or at least, most of the time, I do. Sometimes things sneak up on me. For instance, Nirvana's on my play list these days, even though I remember rolling my teen-aged eyes at all that noise. So if I don't always know what music I like, it probably comes as no surprise that I know pretty much nothing about the science of music. About timbre, rhythm, scale and key. About the science of why things sound good or bad, and why my brain can change its mind that way.
Lucky for me, there's Daniel Levitin. Levitin, a cognitive psychologist at McGill University, explores the brain's relationship with music in This Is Your Brain On Music and it's a catchy a little number.
Music is something we take for granted, and Levitin makes it clear how astonishing our musical faculties are. Take a common scenario: You're in the local mall, and suddenly the piped-in music catches your ear. It's pan flutes and they're playing "Smells Like Teen Spirit." You roll your eyes and think nothing more of it (it's probably best that way). It certainly doesn't cross your mind that your brain has just demonstrated an extraordinary feat of identification.
I have a recording of a bluegrass group, the Austin Lounge Lizards, playing "Dark Side of the Moon" by the progressive rock group Pink Floyd, using banjos and mandolins. I have recordings of the London Symphony Orchestra playing the songs of the Rolling Stones and Yes. With such dramatic changes, the song is still recognizable as the song. It seems, then, that our memory system extracts out some formula or computational description that allows us to recognize songs in spite of these transformations.
Just think about that: The tempo changes, the instruments change, the keys might change — but our ability to recognize it is constant. There is more to music, as it turns out, than meets the ear. And it happens between them.
With a background in the music industry (he's worked with Blue Öyster Cult, Chris Isaak and the Grateful Dead, and was president of new-wave label 415 Records before its buyout by Sony), Levitin starts with an aficionado's passion for music and explains the circuitous route that brought him around to studying the subject scientifically. Like many popular science books, there is an affable , avuncular quality to Levitin's prose, which includes analogies between scientific concepts and daily experience, a smattering of puns and the inevitable mention of Phineas Gage.
Once Levitin explains the basic science of music, he moves on to music and the brain. It is fascinating stuff. One of the most interesting areas is Levitin's discussion of how music and language both use similar areas of the brain, parts of the brain that seem to seek out structure and patterns. In other words, the grammar of music.
The appreciation we have for music is intimately related to our ability to learn the underlying structure of the music we like—the equivalent to grammar in spoken or signed languages—and to be able to make predictions about what will come next. Composers imbue music with emotion by knowing what our expectations are and then very deliberately controlling when those expectations will be met, and when they won't. The thrills, chills, and tears we experience from music are the result of having our expectations artfully manipulated by a skilled composer and the musicians who interpret that music.
Later, Levitin notes that
The close proximity of music and speech processing in the frontal and temporal lobes, and their partial overlap, suggests that those neural circuits that become recruited for music and language may start out life undifferentiated. Experience and normal development then differentiate the functions of what began as very similar neuronal populations. Consider that at a very early age, babies are thought to be synesthetic, to be be unable to differentiate the input from the different senses, and to experience life and the world as a sort of psychedelic union of everything sensory. Babies may see the number five as red, taste cheddar cheeses in D-flat, and smell roses in triangles.
We tend to take communication — language — for granted once we acquire it; for most of us, music just is in the same way. It is fascinating and reassuring that science seems to indicate that this is more than mere coincidence. To our brains, it may be that music is just another language that we learn to understand.
Of course, the magic of music and language isn't just in the structure. Structure is necessary, but it's not the point. The best music, the best speeches, the best books transcend the rules of their forms. They aren't just technically right: They make us feel something.
Even the most uptight and analytic among us expect to be moved by Shakespeare and Bach. We can marvel at the craft these geniuses have mastered, a facility with language or with notes, but ultimately that facility must be brought into service for a different type of communication.
In This is Your Brain on Music, Levitin achieves that higher level. He helped me understand the interplay between the physics of sound and the physiology of my brain, he made me feel something bigger. Levitin loves music, and is amazed by how complicated a thing it is that music touches us, that the song remains the same — and different— on a steel pan or a theremin or a Stratocaster. Levitin was curious about music, and in writing about where that curiosity led him, he brought me not just an increased understanding, but also an increased sense of wonder. It's a feeling that echoes every time I listen to a good song. I know what I like, and I like my brain on music.