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.