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Book Review: This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel J. Levitin

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I enjoy a wide variety of music. A song's sound is more influential than its genre. Whether a song is labeled country, R&B, punk, or reggae, if it sounds good, I like it.

This sounds good judgment is the result of my brain processing sound waves and interpreting elements like pitch, tempo, timbre and rhythm, coupled with my anticipation of "what comes next," to produce a pleasurable experience.

We don't consciously take all this into account when listening to music, of course, but we know what we like. In This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science Of A Human Obsession, Daniel J. Levitin, a neuroscientist and former session musician, sound engineer, and record producer, says although you may not be a music expert or a musician, you’re an expert in knowing what you like.

Levitin shares exciting discoveries that he and other scientists have made about how the brain processes music. He begins by answering a fundamental question: What is music? He writes, "As the composer Edgard Varèse famously defined it, 'Music is organized sound.'"

Organized according to what?

When we listen to music, we recognize sound elements like pitch (defined below), tempo (pace of a song), timbre (how we distinguish one instrument from another), and rhythm (duration of a series of notes).

"When these basic elements combine and form relationships with one another in a meaningful way," Levitin writes, "they give rise to higher-order concepts such as meter, key, melody, and harmony."

Levitin explains these terms in a way non-musicians and non-scientists can understand. For example, just as we perceive color in our brains (because light waves themselves are colorless), we perceive sound waves in a similar way. Light and sound waves impinge on the retina and the ear drum, setting off a chain of neurochemical reactions, and we perceive "red" and "C-Sharp."

Consequently, pitch is a "purely psychological construct" that helps us answer the question, "What note is that?" Pitch represents, in our minds, a sound's frequency (the rate at which air molecules vibrate).

Appreciating music involves much more than recognizing notes. Our appreciation is "intimately related to our ability to learn the underlying structure of the music we like," similar to how we learn grammar rules in language. Knowing these rules gives us the ability to predict what comes next in a piece of music, based on our understanding of musical structure. Composers "imbue music with emotion" by setting us up, much the way magicians do when performing tricks. They know what our expectations are and control when those expectations are met, if at all.

The "thrills, chills, and tears" we experience when listening to a piece of music, says Levitin, are the result of skillful composers manipulating our expectations of what comes next. They accomplish this in a variety of ways, such as adding unusual harmonies to a song, mixing genres, lulling us into a false ending, and unexpectedly ending a song.

Speaking of skillful, it takes quite a bit of skill to explain the functions of the brain to non-scientists. This is where Levitin’s use of analogy is especially helpful. For instance, he contends that we recognize the overall sound of songs the way we recognize a landscape. We take in cues like trees, hills, mountains, and plains that distinguish one region from another; we do the same with musical cues. This resultant "soundscape" enables us to say, "That’s a Beatles song" or "They sound like the Beatles" or "This is early Miles Davis."

This Is Your Brain On Music answers such questions as why certain tunes get stuck in our heads (think commercial jingles) and why the brain takes delight – yes, delight – in synchronizing itself with the pulse of music. This delight holds the key to why we, or rather, our brains, enjoy "organized sound."

Levitin obviously loves music and is equally enamored with science. He hits the right notes as he connects unfamiliar and occasionally arcane theories with familiar pop culture references and common examples to explain music's effect on the brain.

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