It's funny how I initially came upon This is Your Brain on Music. I was sitting with a group of friends one afternoon as we talked about how we all eventually seem to get stuck or trapped in our own generations' music. I immediately thought about myself and questioned if there was perhaps a generational gene that I'd missed inheriting, because I had definitely not stayed with my generation's music. As new music is released I have moved along with it and embraced it. Perhaps it was because, for most of my life I have been a musician. Or maybe it was because I could hear the recycled riffs and shared melody from past compositions that bridged the music from past to the present. But it was that thought that led me to Googling the question 'Why do we love our own generation's music best?' And that search eventually led me to this book.
This is Your Brain on Music is a pretty hard book to argue with. Written by multi-hatted Daniel Levitin, you have to accept that the man knows where he's coming from. The non-music related jobs he's worked at professionally are as diverse and eclectic as any one human could master in a lifetime. He worked as an automobile mechanic and as a graphic designer – a typographer, a chauffeur, product manager, data analyst, dishwasher, computer operator, television repairman, fry cook, stand up comedian, door-to-door salesman, camp counselor, and wood stove salesman.
But then in his thirties he returned to school and studied cognitive psychology/cognitive science, first at Stanford University (he received his B.A. in 1992 with honors and highest university distinction) and then the University of Oregon where he received his M.Sc. (1993) and Ph.D. (1996). He completed post-doctoral fellowships at Paul Allen's Silicon Valley think-tank Interval Research, at the Stanford University Medical School, and at the University of California, Berkeley.
He has been a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University, Dartmouth College, and Oregon Health Sciences University. As a cognitive neuroscientist specializing in music perception and cognition, he is credited with fundamentally changing the way scientists think about auditory memory, showing that long-term memory preserves many of the details of perceptual experience that previous theorists regarded as lost during the encoding process, and with drawing attention to the role of the cerebellum in music listening, including tracking the beat and distinguishing familiar from unfamiliar music.
Over the years he has worked with the likes of The Grateful Dead, Santana, Steely Dan, Chris Isaak, Joe Satriani – just the beginnings of a very lengthy list of musicians. He has won awards from the Sundance Film Festival as well as the Venice Film Festival.
On the music/sound effects side of things he's worked at A Broun Soun in San Rafael, California, building speaker cabinets for The Grateful Dead, for whom he later worked again as a consulting record producer. He was invited and became one of the golden ears used in the first Dolby AC audio compression tests, a precursor to mp3 audio compression.
I know one of the first things out of people's mouths is to wonder how dry this book is. Admittedly, the first part is a bit, but only a bit. It's by no means something that would put you to sleep. Not by a long shot. Daniel writes in the introduction:
By better understanding what music is and where it comes from, we may be able to better understand our motives, fears, desires, memories and even communication in the broadest sense. Is music listening more along the lines of eating when you're hungry, and thus satisfying an urge? Or is it more like seeing a beautiful sunset or getting a backrub, which triggers sensory pleasure systems in the brain? Why do people seem to get stuck in their musical tastes as they grow older and cease experimenting with new music? This is the story of how brains and music evolved – what music can teach us about the brain, what the brain can teach us about music, and what both can teach us about ourselves.
You find that Daniel can tell a very good story too. He imparts many in this book and you begin to wish you could have been a fly on a lot of walls during some of the times he tells about. You also come to understand yourself a little better and understand about things such as ear worms, that which makes songs stick in our heads for much too long sometimes. He tells about finger snapping and toe tapping and how they differ from each other.
And he tells about meeting and working with John R. Pierce who had also been noted for his work while serving as vice president of research at Bell Labs in New Jersey. He relates how Pierce asked him once to explain rock and roll music to him, something Pierce had never paid attention to and didn't understand. Pierce wanted Levitin to come up with six rock and roll songs that he felt would capture the essence of rock and roll. No easy feat! Levitin's offerings were
1. 'Long Tall Sally' Little Richard
2. 'Roll Over Beethoven' The Beatles
3. 'All along the Watchtower' Jimi Hendrix
4. 'Wonderful Tonight' Eric Clapton
5. 'Little Red Corvette' Prince
6. 'Anarchy in the U.K.' the Sex Pistols.
This list alone has you going over in your head which six songs would you have picked? And if any one of yours is among the ones he picked? This is Your Brain on Music also surprised me because I thought I pretty much had a full understanding of the impact music had on my brain. But he opened whole new thoughts about that by bringing a scientific perspective to it. I caution that this book does not read like a textbook, but it does talk about research on how the brain processes music and discusses things like pitch, timbre, rhythm, loudness, and harmony and how they affect the human body. It is a fascinating read and if you have any interest in music whatsoever, this should be a book on your MUST READ list.