Friday, January 30, 2009




Brain & Music


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. Levitin, a neuroscientist and former session musician and producer, has crafted an excellent study that both scientists and lay readers whose grasp of science is somewhat limited 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, may be sow-going for the musically-challenged, 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.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the final one, which makes a case for the evolutionary origins of music, arguing against scientists who believe music was a happy accident or an unplanned byproduct of language development. Levitin shows how music may have played a role in human survival and evolution, including aiding in cognitive development, serving as a key factor in promoting early human interactions, and giving musical males an extra advantage in the grand reproductive race.

Written for non-experts who might not know the difference between a hippocampus and a hippopotamus, This Is Your Brain On Music successfully manages to explain how we listen to music without reducing music to a series of neurons and brain waves. Levitin writes in an intelligent but not overbearing or condescending tone; his passion for music is apparent throughout the book. An excellent integration of science and music, Levitin’s book examines the brain’s role in listening to and processing music without downplaying any of the emotions we experience when listening to music. I enjoyed the book, particularly the science of the brain and its relation to music.


This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of an Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin. Dutton, New York. 2005.

3 comments:

candyschultz said...

Farhad Manjoo did a review of this back in 2006 on Salon. I remember finding the article so informative I felt I didn't need to read the book. Maybe I was wrong.

James said...

If you are interested in the intersection of music and the brain, this is the book for you. Depending on if you have some background knowledge, the discussion of music (which I brought to the book) or the neuroscience of the brain may appear somewhat basic, but I still found the combination enlightening.

candyschultz said...

Unfortunately for our budget I am interested in everything.