Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of This is Your Brain on Music The Science of a Human Obsession

by Daniel J. Levitin

(Dutton, 256 pages, $24.95, August, 2006)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Levitin has done it again! Discover his great new book and audiobook coverThe World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature

In the summer of 1969, 11-year-old Daniel J. Levitin spent $100, representing about 135 hours of hard work weeding neighbors' gardens, on a stereo system. "I didn't listen particularly loud," he writes, "at least not compared to my college days when I actually set my loudspeakers on fire by cranking up the volume too high, but the noise was evidently too much for my parents."

So young Daniel's businessman father made him a proposition. He bought his son a pair of headphones in exchange for a promise to use them whenever he was home. That turned out to be a life-altering event, writes Levitin in the introduction to This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. It forever changed the way he listened to music. To him, "records were no longer just about the songs anymore, but about the sound."

That discovery launched Levitin on a career as a professional musician, sound engineer, and record producer who worked with innovative world-class recording artists like Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, earning gold records along the way. He also worked with "dozens of musical no-names, people who are extremely talented but never made it."

He couldn't help wondering what ingredients went into musical success. He wondered what creativity is and where it comes from. He was curious about the emotional impact of music and the role of perception, especially "the uncanny ability of great musicians and engineers to hear nuances that most of us don't."

The questions eventually became as compelling to Levitin as the music itself. He went back to school to find the answers and emerged with even deeper questions instead. He morphed from a musical performer and producer into a scientist whose profound insights and probing questions into music formed the foundation of a ground-breaking research program.

Today, he is a psychology professor, neuroscientist, and head of the Levitin Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal. As such, he is adept with the jargon of both music and neuroscience. But he has not forgotten his roots in performance, and it shows in the way he approaches his subject matter in this book.

Levitin understands that a great performance establishes connections between artist and audience both emotionally and intellectually. It transforms people's perception of their lives and their surroundings and transports both performer and listener to a new state of being.

In short, he knows that the goal of musical performance is to unite artist and audience in a common experience. His writing aims for a similar convergence. Setting jargon aside in favor of everyday terminology, Levitin gives readers enough background to understand what to listen for in many different musical genres. That enables them to connect his scientific questions to their own experiences.

A recurring theme is how various musical elements come together to create a soundscape and a theme. The book's chapters follow a similar trajectory, beginning with four that lay the groundwork for the central theme to come.

"What is Music? From Pitch to Timbre" describes the elements of musical sound. "Foot Tapping: Rhythm, Loudness, and Harmony" discusses structural elements and qualities that combine to produce a physical response in the listener. "Behind the Curtain: Music and the Mind Machine" describes how auditory signals become neuro-chemical impulses, which lead both to emotional responses (the soundscape) and to intellectual decoding (thematic content). Familiarity and novelty lie at the heart of "Anticipation: What We Expect from Liszt (and Ludacris)."

With those chapters under their belts, readers, no matter what their own musical preferences, begin to understand the various musical genres. In short they are ready to tackle ideas of the way the mind categorizes music--and other things as well. They make the same leap that Levitin does, from experiencing music to exploring the science of perception and cognition, musical and otherwise.

Next readers plunge beneath the thinking mind to the living brain. They sit with a young Levitin who has been offered a rare invitation to join the "professor's lunch" at the Salk Institute. Four seats away is Institute Director Francis Crick, best known for his work on the structure of DNA, but admired by Levitin for his book The Astonishing Hypothesis, which argues that consciousness arises from the physical structure and electrochemical activity in the brain.

At the lunch table, Levitin reflects on a passage from Crick's autobiographical What Mad Pursuit. Like Levitin, Crick was several years older than his fellow students and had limited academic achievement when he entered graduate school. Finally, Crick realized that "lack of qualification could be an advantage. By the time most scientists have reached age thirty they are trapped by their own expertise."

But as a visitor, all Levitin can do is listen respectfully. When he finally gets his chance to talk to the great man, the conversation is memorable. "Look at the connections," are Crick's parting words. A few months later, he would be dead.

Crick's advice resonates through the remaining chapters. "What Makes a Musician?" dissects expertise in music and in other realms--and disputes the so-called "Mozart Effect" as well as the claim that Mozart achieved expertise in an inordinately short time. "My Favorite Things" explores individual--and universal--musical preferences.

The final chapter, "The Music Instinct," makes a powerful case in opposition to noted cognitive scientist, Stephen Pinker, who argues that music evolved as a happy by-product of linguistic ability. This is simply not so, argues Levitin. Our minds and our bodies would have evolved very differently without it.

Like a peacock's tail, music serves as a powerful display of reproductive fitness. It is also far more effective than language in creating emotional bonding between individuals and among members of a group. From the most primitive to the most advanced subsystems, every human brain is on music, including yours.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of 15 science books for young readers, including Mind Tools: The Science of Artificial Intelligence, and a prolific reviewer of science books for adults.