REVIEW: This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin

I read a wide variety of books. In the steady stream of mysteries and thrillers I admit to reading romances and YA. My library includes books on computer programming, business, self improvement (none of which have taken hold), and science.  If something seems interesting I’ll take a run at it. A few years back I decided life is too short to muddle through a book I am forcing myself to read. It may not be a bad book. It doesn’t click with me. I have tried Hemingway, but can’t get into his rhythm, so I gave up feeling inadequate that I didn’t like him and moved on.

Rhythm of writing is important to me. Keep that in mind. Writing in a way that feels like a conversation is different than an actual conversation. Go ahead. Transcribe a conversation some time and see how ugly it is to read. In fiction, the conversation is controlled by the imagination of the author. It is more difficult in non-fiction, especially non-fiction that is based on deep research. For those works, success happens when the book reads like a great lecture. One that captivates and interests you while smashing you with technical details. The conversational mode is my litmus test for the joy of reading. It is not an easy form to accomplish, but it offers a huge variety of voices.

Like I said, some books are fun to read, some are a drudgery. Then there are those that change the way you look at the world. This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin is a book that has changed how I look at the world. The revelations were subtle, kind of like “Ahh, that makes sense” moments and they keep resonating with me long after I finished the book.

First, Levitin has a good voice to listen to. His writing style is academic, but smooth. It finds that seam between dry presentation and entertainment. You get a feel that there is a human talking to you, not just a presentation of facts.

Second, he is a real musician. He has played in rock bands and knows music. He references everything from Beethoven to The Beatles (I couldn’t resist the cliché). You can tell by what he says and how he says it that he loves music.

Third, he is a bonafide authority. He has a PhD in neuro-science (I am close on the field). Specifically, his interest is in evolutionary psychology. The basic tenant is animals evolve within the environment and, as a result of evolutionary changes in inhabitants, the environment is altered. That cycle is dynamic and constant.

I’m a big believer in evolution. It is a fact, so saying I’m a believer is like saying I believe in the color blue. When you boil down the premise of this book, it is about exploring why music has been such an obsession for so long in the context of evolution. Since I have a simple mind, here is the basic  concept of evolution. Animals develop traits that help them survive and reproduce. Life is short, so it is important to do both of those. Since we live in a dynamic world, helps us to adapt to longer term changes and get better at surviving and having sex.

Levitin starts with the basic question, “Why is music so important from an evolutionary perspective?”  Music is a trait. A trait that doesn’t contribute to the fundamentals of evolution will ultimately be reduced. Music has not been reduced. To set the groundwork he starts with defining some music basics so we are all on the same page. Things like rhythm, tempo, timbre, loudness, etc… You get it.  I won’t repeat what he says, but will say that he says it in a way that helps you to better understand concepts you think you already knew.

My first big revelation came on page 29. Music (sound) is the only sense that impacts the brain directly. When you see a color, your brain converts your visual sense into neural vibrations.

If I put electrodes in your visual cortex (the part of the brain at the back of the head, concerned with seeing), and I then showed you a red tomato, there is no group of neurons that will cause my electrodes to turn red. But if I put electrodes on your auditory cortex and play a pure tone in your ears at 44Hz, there are neurons in your auditory cortex that will fire at precisely that frequency…

Sound is built into our brains. It is probably the first sense that we pay attention to. We make sound as soon as we are born. There is good evidence that we made music before we had language. And we all know that lead singers get the girls, so music is all about evolutionary advantage.

That is the beauty of this book. Levitin adds new information while re-focusing you on what you already thought you knew. His passion for the subject is evident. His personality pours out into the presentation of research. He is respectful when he disagrees with research of others, but he handles it by showing research that counters that work. He debunks while bunking. The flow of the book is methodical, but not clumsy. He makes all of his points in clear prose and with a deft hand. Yes, there are some technical areas that require re-reading and might be a strain on the flow, but they are important in the context of the book. Leaving nothing out, the investigation is thorough while entertaining.

There is a lot to this book. If, like me, you love music, this is a must read. Yes, that is my Les Paul in the picture along with the curly cord of bliss.  I love to feel the note through my body. There are times when I am hitting everything just right, the tubes on my amp are warm and oozing texture and I can feel the next note and play it without thinking about it. I love the feeling and understanding technically why it is hasn’t diminished that feeling at all. If anything, the knowledge I now have has made me closer to the music (my term, not what others call the noise I make) that I create.

If you are a listener, a practitioner or just curious, this book will open your mind, and ears. We are all about rhythm and vibrations. Celebrate them.

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JL Gentry is an author, an IT professional, an average runner and cyclist, a below average guitarist, an above average lover of beer, and a listener of music. He is addicted to Spotify, 1960’s Olympia SM9 manual typewriters, fountain pens and making comments that he feels are funny. Although he maintains his alter ego as a businessman, there are few days that go by without him putting pen to the page (literally or virtually). He is grateful for social media for it has allowed him to become part of a community of other wordsmiths who share his love of language. As he says in his twitter bio he “loves women and words, but both confound him.” He takes life seriously, but not himself. That’s why he stays fit and is trying to learn how to code java really well. Go figure.

You can find JL Gentry on Twitter at @JerryLGentry.

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