Wednesday, January 16, 2008

PBDB Book Review Dept: This is Your Brain on Music

by JW

For my first PBDB book review, I thought I'd alert readers to this fascinating description of the little-understood world of exactly what is happening inside our heads when we hear music. Perhaps an even more interesting (and less understood) element of this book is author Dan Levitin's discussion of the "Why" of music: what, if any, purposes has music served for human beings in our evolutionary history?

Levitin's career trajectory gives him some unusual perspectives on all these things. After many years as a producer and engineer of rock and pop records in the 70's and 80's, he became a neuroscientist and leading researcher on music and the brain. He is clearly a fan of almost all styles of music, and takes great pains to mention examples from almost every genre throughout the book.

I was fascinated by Levitin's descriptions of recent groundbreaking studies of how we perceive, remember, and react to music. It turns out that music interacts with and relates to many of the oldest and most basic parts of our brains, including areas that involve movement and coordination, and sections that process basic emotions. This is mysterious from an evolutionary perspective, since no one knows precisely what evolutionary purpose music serves. Why have we developed such complex and finely tuned mechanisms for processing it? Levitin points out that our brain's ability to transpose melodies to different pitches (while still recognizing them as the same melody) is one of the great mysteries of cognitive research. The computing ability required for our brains to do this is beyond the abilities of the most complex supercomputers, yet a person with no musical training at all can sing "Happy Birthday" starting on any pitch with no problems.

As with so many areas of brain research, what we don't know about this topic turns out to far exceed what we do know. Levitin is working on the leading edge of one of the greatest areas of scientific discovery of our lifetimes, and it's fun to ride along with him as he outlines what we know so far and how little we do know.

That said, I have to alert the (mostly) musician readership of this blog to an occasionally annoying problem with the book. Levitin is clearly writing for a general audience, and he spends about a quarter to a third of the book describing and explaining the basic features of music - pitch, timbre, rhythm, etc. He knows he is going over things that his musical readership probably already knows, and he does put most of this material into two chapters (which he invites musician readers to skim). Still, I often had to wade through some Music 101 sections in the rest of the book to get to the "good stuff" about the brain. Conversely, I often felt that Levitin would spend too little time if any explaining the technical terms and neuropsychological jargon that he uses. When you have waded through an entire section on what a backbeat is, and are later confronted with a sentence like:

Music for the developing brain is a form of play, an exercise that invokes higher-level integrative processes that nurture exploratory competence, preparing the child to explore generative language development through babbling, and ultimately explore more complex linguistic and paralinguistic productions.

that has little or no explanation of the various terms invoked, you can't help but feel like the author might be assuming too little music knowledge and a bit too much neuroscience knowledge on the part of his readers. If he is truly writing for a general audience (and he clearly is), he could have spent a little more time making sure that the science is as clearly explained as the music is.

That said, I still found this book an enjoyable and informative read, and encourage you to check it out. It gives me a new appreciation for the power that music exerts over us, and for how mysterious that power still is, even to the most brilliant scientists.

I'll leave you with a fascinating excerpt from the book. Levitin is asking what makes for an expert musician as opposed to an inexpert or unskilled one. Is it some sort of brain feature that others lack? He reviews some recent studies and concludes:

The emerging picture from these studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert - in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, Ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours is equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. Of course, this doesn't address why some people don't seem to get anywhere when they practice, and why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others. but no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time. It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know and achieve true mastery.

How far along are you to getting your ten thousand in? Let's all get back to work!

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