This is Your Brain on Music

One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time is Daniel J. Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music (2007). It covers a wide range of disciplines (neuroscience, psychology, musical theory) to explain the various processes that go on in our brain when we listen to music. Why do we really like certain types of music and completely dislike other types? Why does certain music touch us at an emotional level even more than language or poetry? “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  Simply, no. Sound is a mental image created by the brain in response to vibrating molecules. Similarly, there can be no pitch without a human or animal present.” Levitin provides eloquent, well-researched, and inspiring answers to these and similar questions, helping us to understand music, and ultimately ourselves, better. Here are some of his most interesting observations:

Creativity vs. theory: “For the artist, the goal of the painting or musical composition is not to convey literal truth, but an aspect of a universal truth that will continue to move and to touch people even as contexts, societies, and cultures change. … For the scientist the goal of a theory is to replace an old truth, while accepting that someday this theory too will be replaced by new truth because that is the way science advances.”

Why we like certain music: “The appreciation we have for music is intimately related to our ability to learn the underlying structure of the music we like and 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 they won’t. The thrills, chills, and tears we experience from music are the result of having our expectations artfully manipulated by a skilled composer and the musicians who interpret that music. … Songs that we keep coming back to for years play around with expectations just enough that they are always at least a little bit surprising.”

On success and failure: “On average, successful people have had many more failures than unsuccessful people. This seems counter-intuitive. How could successful people have failed more often than everyone else? Failure is unavoidable and sometimes happens randomly. It’s what you do after the failure that is important. Successful people have a stick-to-itiveness, they don’t quit.”

How our brains organize and remember information: “The reason that chunking is important is because our brains have limits on how much information they can actively keep track of. There is no practical limit to long-term memory that we know of, but working memory, the contents of our present awareness, is severely limited. Generally to nine pieces of information.”

Mozart: “A study made the newspapers and talk-shows a couple of years ago, claiming that listening to Mozart for ten minutes a day made you smarter. Specifically, music listening, it was claimed, can improve your performance on special reasoning tasks given immediately after the listening session which some journalists thought implied mathematical ability as well. US congress men were passing resolutions, the Governor of Georgia appropriated funds to buy a Mozart CD for every newborn baby Georgian. …Music listening enhances or changes certain neuro-circuits, including the density of the dendritic connections in the primary auditory cortex. … Whether these structural changes in the brain translate to enhance abilities in non-musical domains has not been proven, but music listening and music therapy have been shown to help people overcome a broad range of psychological and physical problems.”

Music and babies: “Musical preferences are influenced, but not determined, in the womb. There is also an extended period of acculturation, during which the infant takes in the music of the culture she is born into. … As adults, the music we tend to be nostalgic for, the music that feels like it is our music, corresponds to the music we heard during our teenage years. One of the first signs of Alzheimer’s Disease in older adults is memory loss. As the disease progresses, memory loss becomes more profound. Yet many of these old-timers can still remember how to sing the songs they heard when they were 14. Why 14? Part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because those years were times of self-discovery, and as a consequence they were emotionally charged. We tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdala and neuro-transmitters act in concert to tag the memories as something important.”

Complexity vs. simplicity: “The balance between simplicity and complexity in music also informs our preferences. Scientific studies of like and dislike across a variety of aesthetic domains – painting, poetry, dance, and music – have shown that an orderly relationship exists between the complexity of an artistic work and how much we like it. Of course, complexity is an entirely subjective concept. What one person finds insipid and hideously simple, another person might find difficult to understand, based on differences in background, experience, understanding and cognitive schemas. …When music is too predictable, the outcome is too certain, and the move from one chord to the next contains no element of surprise, we find the music unchallenging and simplistic. As the music is playing, particularly if you’re engaged with focused attention, your brain is thinking ahead to what the different possibilities for what the next note are, where the music is going, the trajectory, its intended direction, and its ultimate end point. The composer has to lull us into a state of trust and security, we have to allow him to take us on a harmonic journey. He has to give us enough little rewards, completions of expectations, that we feel a sense of order and a sense of place. … At a neuro level, we need to be able to find a few landmarks in order to invoke a cognitive schema. If we hear a piece of radically new music enough times, some of that piece will eventually become encoded in our brains and we will develop landmarks. If the composer is skilful, those parts of the piece that become our landmarks will be parts of the piece that the composer intended as such.”

Wagner: “Safety plays a role for a lot of us in choosing music. To a certain extent we surrender to music when we listen to it, we let down our emotional guard, drop our defenses and let the music take us somewhere outside of ourselves. Many of us feel that great music connects us to something outside of ourselves. To other people, or to God. Even when music doesn’t transport us to an emotional place that is so transcendent, music can change our mood. We might be understandably reluctant then to let down our guard, to drop our emotional defenses for just anyone. We will do so if the musicians and composer will make us feel safe. We want to know that our vulnerability is not going to be exploited. This is part of the reason why so many people can’t listen to Wagner.”

Mirror neurons: “The purpose of mirror neurons is presumably to train and prepare the organism to make movements it has not made before. Mirror neurons may explain an old mystery of how it is that infants learn to imitate the faces that their parents make at them. It may also explain why musical rhythm moves us, both emotionally and physically.”

Music and language: “As a tool for activation of specific thoughts, music is not as good as language, as a tool for emotional arousal, music is better than language. The combination of the two is best exemplified in a love song, as the best courtship display of all.”

This entry was posted in Books, Inspiration, Music, Psychology, Theory. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to This is Your Brain on Music

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