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, for more info.

More On The New Hitchhiker’s Book

Some interesting notes on the new Hitchhiker’s book from The Guardian.

  • It’s being published by Penguin, not Hyperion as I reported earlier. (I thought the NPR thing mentioned Hyperion.)
  • It’s sanctioned by Adams’ wife.
  • It’s plotted as a way of bringing Douglas Adams’ work to the next generation of readers.

Um…on that last point, wouldn’t it make more sense to allow Douglas Adams’ work to bring new readers to Douglas Adams’ work?

Still seems greedy to me. And artistically void, since Adams’ books are so unique that even the people involved in this new book admit no one can write like him. And really, they weren’t about plot or character, they were about style. (I remember once having an argument with my cousin about who was a better writer — Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. I still hold that Pratchett is the better writer, because his books actually follow narrative structure, and have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and a theme, and all that general mishmash of novel stuff. And, oh yes, Pratchett generally tends to finish books, which is why he has turned out so many more than Adams. Errr, well, that and he is still alive and all….)

Why Are They Jumping Up And Down On Douglas Adams’ Grave?

Eoin Colfer, who wrote the popular childrens book series Artemis Fowl has been tapped to write a sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Now, I like Mr. Colfer okay. I understand his reasoning for not turning down the offer out of hand. And I hope he does a decent job. I read the first Artemis Fowl book, and thought it was okay, but it didn’t make me really want to read another one. I’m probably not his audience anyway.

But I’m really pissed at the greedy book publishers over at Hyperion (a book company owned by Disney, the company I work for) Penguin, who just won’t let that series sit. It’s over. No one else can write it. For goodness sake, do something original, and don’t sully up the brand trying to continue to make money on it.

Reading: Star Wars – The Clone Wars Novelization

I have a confession to make. I didn’t rush out to the theater to see Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I hear you gasp. I hear you ask what has happened to my fandom. And no, I will not turn in my Jedi Knights membership card. Mind tricks are far too useful.

The characters are horrendously ugly to me. I always hated Thunderbirds. Just not my form of geekdom. Nothing against puppets. I love everything the Henson company has ever done. But the whole action/adventure marionette thing doesn’t work for me.

I’ll see it when it the TV show hits.

In the meantime, despite the fact that I have sworn off most Star Wars novels, I decided to pick up the novelization so I could get an idea of what the series was like. Add the fact that it’s written by Karen Traviss, and it didn’t seem so bad. She’s a great writer. I especially enjoyed her Republic Commando books. Her New Jedi Order (NJO) books are involving, but none of the NJO books really fit in my fan canon of Star Wars, so I can’t really bother to read them anymore.

The Clone Wars is really a pretty good story. It’s somewhere halfway between a kids book and an adult book. We get to listen to Anakin’s inner struggles about the war. We get to see a lot of the story from Clone Trooper Captain Rex’s perspective. We even get a little bit of insight into Assaj Ventris, while leaving some mystery. Bake that all in the cauldron of non-stop Star Wars action, and you get a great tasting Star Wars cookie.

I did find the character of Ahsoka, Anakin’s padawan, kind of annoying at first. She’s the whiny little kid who wants to play with the big kids. She’s the gateway character, who gives Anakin someone to talk to. She also provides Anakin a way to grow a bit. And I did grow to like her a bit by the end of the novel. But I still kind of feel like she’s way out of place in the story. I wanted to hear about Anakin and Obi-Wan’s adventures together. I didn’t so much want them always separated and meeting up at the end.

From what I hear, there’s a characterization of a Hutt character as Truman Capote in the movie that’s kind of annoying. Thankfully, you don’t get voice-acting in the book. And I think the characters are drawn a little more shallowly in the TV series. It’s a testament to Traviss as a writer that she can elevate a kid’s cartoon to something that feels like an adult story. I really did enjoy the book, and my suspicion is, I won’t like the toon as much. But maybe it will take some of the edge off the toon to have read the book first.

If you’re a fan of Karen Traviss’ Star Wars work, I recommend this one. If you haven’t read any Traviss, definitely do. If you’re a fan of Mandalorians, Clone Troopers, or Storm Troopers, you’ll really like her books. She gives them a depth and a military real-ness that gets you involved in their stories. And if you haven’t played Republic Commando, I highly recommend it. One of the most fun Star Wars games, ever.

Reading: Mike and Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse

Picture me in 1981, a geeky 13, sitting in front of my dad’s big boom-box stereo, stack of cassette tapes nearby, along with my self-constructed lightsaber and my Kenner X-Wing, all ready to listen to the very first episode of the Star Wars radio series on NPR. I’m a little less than 30 minutes early, because, back in the good old days, we didn’t have the Internet where we could just download things to steal them, we had to actually do the work of recording the analog signal to steal them.

So I’m sitting there, thirty minutes early, and a remarkable thing happens. My local NPR station is playing another radio drama before Star Wars. Something about aliens and poetry and towels that’s filled with a politely ironic kind of humor with no sense of scale that I will later discover is unique to the British mind. This is how I discovered Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy , and also how I discovered that there was something about British humour that interacted quite positively with my brainwave patterns, and would later lead to a life of ignoring the 275 million other channels on my cable for BBC America.

Now, I know a LOT of people out there love the Hitchhikers series. Even depsite the miserable movie. (Can someone please invent a time machine, take the movie back in time, and show it to Douglas Adams so he will sit down and actually write and produce a proper movie before he dies?) I know quite a few million people also like Terry Pratchett, whose wonderful Discworld books do for fantasy and sword and sorcery what Adams’ books did for science fiction. But how many of you out there realize that their senses of humour were actually formed by yet another wonderful British writer, P.G. Wodehouse?

I’ve read interview with both Adams and Pratchett where they mentioned being influenced by Wodehouse, but I never really checked out his work. I mean, I already had the chocolate lava cake and the frozen yogurt…why would I need to seek out the sugar cookies, too. (Hmmmm…perhaps that should be sugar ‘biscuits’, since we’re being British.) I mean, Wodehouse isn’t even a fantasy or sci fi author either?

And then, there I was, in the mildewy, Dave Barry infested, humor section of my local used bookstore, when my eyes locked with a tall stack of slim volumes by none other than P.G. Wodehouse. I flipped through the stack looking at the titles, confronted by alien and yet somehow familiar words and phrases like “What Ho”, “Barmy”, and “Crumpets”. The words worked their peculiar magic on my alpha waves, and I purchased the stack, and I have been ecstatically reading them whenever I needed a good, pick-me-up of a book ever since.

Lots of people are probably familiar with the Jeeves and Wooster stories, about a foppish young member of the elite and his brilliant but humble servant. Especially since the pair were ably played in the BBC TV series by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Lesser known is a series of stories about a character named Psmith. I just finished reading the first of these, Mike and Psmith.

Mike and Psmith is essentially the pre-cursor of ever school drama ever written. You know what I’m talking about — things like Real Genius or Better Off Dead, humorous tales about outcasts forced to find a way to live in a school they don’t feel at home in. In this case, the outcast in Mike, who only really wants to play cricket. His grades have suffered and his father packs him off to a school where cricket isn’t that important, so he can focus on academics. There, he meets Psmith. Whose real name is Smith, but that seemed too common, so he added a ‘P’, which is, in fact, silent, just like in ‘pshrimps’. Like Ford Prefect of the Hitchhiker’s books, Psmith is the slightly out of touch character who has an amazing talent of verbal persuasion, confusing people into getting him what he wants while he lounges in deck chairs. While the central focus of Mike and Psmith is on Mike learning to fit in and be himself, Psmith is that great character that you’re really reading the book for. Wodehouse seems to have figured that out, as, from what I’ve read, other books in this series focus much more on Psmith.

Mike and Psmith is a great read, and contains one of my favorite quotes in a Wodehouse novel:

“…he had confused the unusual with the impossible, and the result was that he was taken by surprise.”

You can download Mike and Psmith free from Project Gutenberg.

Reading: Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

If you’re not familiar with Oliver Sacks, he’s a neurologist who has sort of popularized the field of brain science in much the same way that Carl Sagan has popularized the field of astronomy. He’s written a tall stack of books detailing the unique cases he has come across in his profession, and providing a unique insight into what it is to be human.

Musicophilia Cover
Musicophilia Cover

His latest book, Musicophilia, is a look at the relationship between the human brain and music — an a unique relationship it turns out to be. For instance, you know how you occasionally get one of those obnoxious jingles stuck in the musical part of your brain. “Have it yooooour way, have it your way…” all day long? Now imagine the same thing, only not in that slightly muffled music area of your brain, but concious, as if a radio was playing, but only you could hear it. Sacks details people who live with this issue everyday — music playing in their head that only they can hear, and that in some cases is impossible to disregard. And in many cases, it’s not even music the person particularly likes! ACK! Contiunuously tuned into the Brittney Spears station on ethereal radion would surely drive me mad.

And yet, for every tale of something that seems a malady, Sacks tells a story of something unique and sublime about the human relationship with music. Alzheimer’s patients who can still perform beautiful, passionate music, or can at least sing their favorite songs. Children with Williams Syndrome, who almost seem, from Sack’s description to be elvish — another species, tremendously friendly and likeable, with a love of the melodies and rhythms of music.

I have to say I really found the book both frightening and fascinating. I’ve read bits about Buddhist wisdom where they basically describe the world as an illusion created by the self. I’m sure at first glance, most people dismiss that as being kind of self-centered philosophy. “Oh, there’s just me and everything else is my imagination.” But the brain science in Sack’s book makes it a lot easier to understand what’s being said there. Everything we see, or hear, or sense in any way is the result of our brain intepreting changes in the environment around us through our senses and our preconceptions. When Sacks talks in his book about the people who are hearing music in their heads as if it were real and present, you begin to realize that the sensory system we depend on to show us “truth” cannot always be depended upon. It’s a scary notion, but manageable, when you wrap yourself around the idea. Everyone really is an individual that sees the world in a unique way depending on their basic physical hardware and their personality or self. It becomes a more challenging thought to walk in someone else’s shoes then, since, because they have had a whole different set of experiences during their lifetime, and their senses might work a little differently, there are differences between us (even if we are all human).

It’s not all sort of confusing and dark, though, as music really is a transcendent force as portrayed in the book. It’s amazing that the fact that music develops sort of separately from things like speech and memory, makes it something that can be helpful in the rehabilitation of stroke victims, or can make the life of those with dementia happier. It can even make it easier to connect with a loved one with those challenges by providing a common ground.

I’ve been trying to make music a bigger part of my life, since it does seem to bring a shared happiness to people. Musicophilia confirmed for me that I should continue in this path as musical skills are something one can share long into your life. Music brings hope, and hope is often what life is made from.

Reading: World of Warcraft: Beyond the Dark Portal

I just finished the latest novel in the Warcraft universe, World of Warcraft: Beyond the Dark Portal. This one picks up where the last one left off. The orcs once again open the Dark Portal from Draenor to Azeroth, mainly to steal some magical artifacts so that they can escape their dying world, and build a new, more powerful Horde somewhere in the multiverse where there isn’t an Alliance there to stop them. Meanwhile, the Alliance sends some angst-ridden hero types over to Draenor to try and stop them.

World of Warcraft: Beyond the Dark Portal
World of Warcraft: Beyond the Dark Portal

It’s a pretty good read. The character motivations are interesting, if simplistic. But I think you have to expect that in novels based on properties like WoW (or Star Trek, or Star Wars). The plot moves along pretty briskly, and if you’re into exciting battles, you’re going to enjoy it. I have to say, Christie Golden is my favorite WoW author, so I’m glad she’ll be writing more novels in the universe. Aaron Rosenberg has also done quite good work, and their styles seem to mesh well in this book.

I sort of wish for more character development here. There’s a love story between and elf and a human, and it’s just one of those sort of teen-age angsty sort of stories that doesn’t seem very adult. And also seems to totally ignore the elves seemingly amazingly long life spans. It’s just a bit too pat. But, admittedly, it pretty much reads like the love stories in most action movies. If you’re here for a chick-flick, you’re in the wrong universe.

One other comment I could make on the series is I really could wish for more of the comedic flavor of the game. I really like the Gnomes and Goblins in the game because they tend to lend a bit of comedy to something that could otherwise become dark and serious. I think the novels could benefit from a bit more humor. Everyone is always tied up in the apocalyptic stuff going on. A little lightness would be welcomed. Not that the book is depressing, I just like the occasional heroic wink, or the bickering between characters like R2-D2 and C-3P0 in Star Wars.