Reading: This Is Your Brain On Music

Did music ever stir your emotions? Make you cry? Laugh? Feel afraid? Feel like getting out of your seat and moving?

Yeah, you macho guys are sitting there, going, “No way…music only makes me want to rawk!” Well, maybe so. But what about the stirring, high-pitched violin string as the stalker sneaks up on the helpless, giggling co-ed, rusty hatchet drawn back over one shoulder? Yeah, that got you. Imagine watching that scene without that gut-wrenching music in it. Watch that scene with the sound turned down. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Something was missing, wasn’t it. It almost seemed kind of funny. It defnitely wasn’t the same emotional state without the music.

What about, did you ever have an ear worm? You know one of those songs you can’t get our of your head?

Did you ever wonder why you rock at Guitar Hero or Rock Band, but you never became a great piano player?

This Is Your Brain On Music book cover
This Is Your Brain On Music book cover

This Is Your Brain On Music is about that, and a whole lot more. It’s a study of how the human brain and music are wrapped up and entwined in an amazing way. How music is so much a part of being human that it’s easy to see why many of us experience it as often as we can. Our very nature is musical.

Daniel J. Levitin carefully constructs both a course in music and in neuroscience in this book. Early chapters explain music theory in a way the accordion lessons I took as a kid never could. (I actually think if someone had explained music to me the way Levitin does in this book, I would have actually learned how to play something more than scales.) He goes on to relate this to how the brain works to perceive things, but rather than just writing a remarkable book about the science of music, he begins to talk about how perception affects emotion, and how when that happens…you get Art. (Yes, with a captial A.)

“The appreciation we have for music is intimately related to our ability to learn the underlying structure of the music we like — the equivalent to grammar in spoken or signed languages — and to be able to make predictions about what will come next. Composers imbue music with emotion by knowing what our expectations are and then very deliberately controlling when those expectations will be met, and when they won’t.”

I can think of how many ways that statement applies to art of all kinds — if you’re a writer, you keep the lovers in your latest novel apart for as long as you can to make their final moment of joining ecstasy. If you’re a comedian, you time your punch line perfectly for the biggest laugh. How fascinating it is that all of this relates back to the same brain adaptations that make humans musical.

Before he was a brain scientist, Levitin was both a performer and a producer, and most of all, he’s a lover of music, and this comes across in his style — he has a passion for music that makes him easy to relate to. Check out the book’s web site, yourbrainonmusic.com for more info.