Thursday, June 27, 2013

This is Your Brain on Music

This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin
Read: 7 April to 21 April 2012
4 / 5 stars

I know enough about music theory to have a favorite time signature; my knowledge of neurological studies, however, is about what you'd expect from someone who's taken a long-ago Psych 101 class to fill a core-curriculum requirement. Also, I'm very much a hands-on learner: Sometimes I need some auditory help, sometimes I need a visual example before I can figure out what the hell's being taught to me. So reading a book about the science of music should have been an exercise in making myself feel positively daft, right?

If Levitin were pretentious enough to slap the "Doctor" title he earned onto his byline, maybe I would have beaten my (autographed!) copy of This is Your Brain on Music against every poundable surface within bashing range. But the nonchalant anyone-can-figure-this-stuff-out-with-the-right-guidance attitude that Levitin takes with a subject that is clearly exciting and dear to him is quite possibly the best part about this book. Having an expert navigate the sometimes murky waters of music theory and the baffling stuff of which neuroscience is made turned what could have been a daunting and confusing journey into an actively enjoyable reading experience. Kudos to you, doc. And kudos again.

So before he was a neuroscientist, Levitin worked in the music industry. Because of his immersion both fields (and because citing your sources and offering examples makes for a stronger argument), he name-drops a lot of musical powerhouses and prolific sciencey smarty-pantses. A lot of the reviews I've read make it seem like it's distracting and comprises the bulk of these pages: It's not and it doesn't. I mean, the guy has a favorite Zep sound engineer and gets all tongue-tied fangirly when he talks to the scientists he admires. Those aren't the sort of sly moves that try to subtly scream "Look at all the cool people I've rubbed elbows with, guys!" Rather, such things lend credibility and real-world examples to a lot of theorized text while also giving credit to the people who've influenced him along the way. Do we know with absolute certainty how the brain works and why music moves us the way it does? We do not, but Levitin backs up the theories he supports with lots and lots of musical and personal examples. Which helps someone who can't help having a blatantly abstract interpretation of the world around her (i.e., me) understand an argument that would usually be best made with a series of presentations and musical interludes.

The range of musical examples used in this book is astounding. Everything from the classical composers' mainstays to mid-aughts pop-culture hits is explored for their structure, songwriting, beats, technically imperfect but emotionally spot-on interpretations, earworminess and more. It helped me appreciate the skill of artists like Buddy Holly, who I'd known mostly as a popular act instead of an actual songwriting powerhouse, who knew how to use all sorts of tricks to maximize the emotional impact and suggestions of his tunes.

While explaining the science behind music, he taps into art, psychology and general creative pursuits just as confidently as he applies his arguments to those fields and mines them for one-step-further examples. If Levitin's casual approach to dispensing accessible musical and neuroscientific knowledge is what helps make this book a success, the far-reaching nature of his thesis helped dial the interesting factor up to 11.

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