A book that analyzes how our brains process, listen to, remember, and interpret music runs the risk of being the equivalent of explaining a joke. It’s not entirely helpful or illuminating to understand why someone considers a joke hilarious or abysmally lousy (the wife pig is upset because her husband and two children have turned their home into a total mess. In fact, it’s a sty. See, it’s not funny because it’s a lame joke because…). We instinctively either have a reaction to it; an analysis of why it’s funny or not misses the point.
Similarly, music listeners have a gut reaction to music; it moves us, depresses us, inspires us, makes us want to raise our arms in the air and wave them like we just don’t care, or in the case of Panic At The Disco, causes us to flee in terror, jump the barricades, and bunker down in anticipation of the apocalypse.
Despite these potential pitfalls, Daniel J. Levitin’s This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession is a fascinating study about what happens in the brain when we listen to music, and doesn’t turn the subject into a boring scientific exercise. Levitin, a neuroscientist and former session musician and producer, has crafted an excellent study that both scientists with tons of initials after their names and lay readers whose grasp of science starts and ends with CSI or Forensic Files will find informative. Perhaps best of all, Levitin’s book doesn’t ruin the enjoyment of listening to music.
Levitin primarily takes a thematic approach in examining how the brain functions when listening to music. Although the first chapter, which explains the basics of music like pitch, timbre, meter, and all the other things your elementary school music teacher taught you against your will, is somewhat dry and boring, the remaining chapters are enlightening. With topics including how the brain remembers and recalls music, why music can impact our moods, and why musical preferences can vary from person to person, Levitin explains the processes occurring in the brain without overwhelming the reader with overly-technical and academically-dry details. It’s actually more of a page-turner than some of the best-selling thrillers that find their way onto airplanes and beaches every summer.