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This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession [Paperback]

Daniel J. Levitin
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Aug. 28 2007

What can music teach us about the brain? What can the brain teach us about music? And what can both teach us about ourselves?

 In this groundbreaking union of art and science, rocker-turned-neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin (The World in Six Songs and The Organized Mind) explores the connection between music - its performance, its composition, how we listen to it, why we enjoy it - and the human brain. Drawing on the latest research and on musical examples ranging from Mozart to Duke Ellington to Van Halen, Levitin reveals:

  • How composers produce some of the most pleasurable effects of listening to music by exploiting the way our brains make sense of the world
  • Why we are so emotionally attached to the music we listened to as teenagers, whether it was Fleetwood Mac, U2, or Dr. Dre
  • That practice, rather than talent, is the driving force behind musical expertise
  • How those insidious little jingles (called earworms) get stuck in our head
Taking on prominent thinkers who argue that music is nothing more than an evolutionary accident, Levitin poses that music is fundamental to our species, perhaps even more so than language. A Los Angeles Times Book Award finalist, This Is Your Brain on Music will attract readers of Oliver Sacks and David Byrne, as it is an unprecedented, eye-opening investigation into an obsession at the heart of human nature.

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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Think of a song that resonates deep down in your being. Now imagine sitting down with someone who was there when the song was recorded and can tell you how that series of sounds was committed to tape, and who can also explain why that particular combination of rhythms, timbres and pitches has lodged in your memory, making your pulse race and your heart swell every time you hear it. Remarkably, Levitin does all this and more, interrogating the basic nature of hearing and of music making (this is likely the only book whose jacket sports blurbs from both Oliver Sacks and Stevie Wonder), without losing an affectionate appreciation for the songs he's reducing to neural impulses. Levitin is the ideal guide to this material: he enjoyed a successful career as a rock musician and studio producer before turning to cognitive neuroscience, earning a Ph.D. and becoming a top researcher into how our brains interpret music. Though the book starts off a little dryly (the first chapter is a crash course in music theory), Levitin's snappy prose and relaxed style quickly win one over and will leave readers thinking about the contents of their iPods in an entirely new way. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School–Levitin's fascination with the mystery of music and the study of why it affects us so deeply is at the heart of this book. In a real sense, the author is a rock 'n' roll doctor, and in that guise dissects our relationship with music. He points out that bone flutes are among the oldest of human artifacts to have been found and takes readers on a tour of our bio-history. In this textbook for those who don't like textbooks, he discusses neurobiology, neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, empirical philosophy, Gestalt psychology, memory theory, categorization theory, neurochemistry, and exemplar theory in relation to music theory and history in a manner that will draw in teens. A wonderful introduction to the science of one of the arts that make us human.–Will Marston, Berkeley Public Library, CA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars With a song in our heads Dec 3 2007
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
When a rock musician, a sound engineer and a neuroscientist combine their talents to explain how we think about music, it promises to be interesting. When those three individuals are present in one man who also writes well, the result is compelling. With a strong scientific foundation - no little of that from his own work - from which to build, coupled with his production experience, Levitin has launched a new phase in the understanding of how the mind deals with the outside world. In the manner of colours we think we see, sounds are simply vibrations of air until our brain identifies and translates them for us. Without descending into arcane terms for either the brain or music, he skilfully guides us through the process of "music appreciation" - and why we do.

Musicians enter our lives more intimately than almost anybody else. They can inspire us, influence our lives in innumerable ways, and they are available at any time - virtually at our command. We welcome their presence even when we haven't consciously sought them out. Music is always a personal relationship, sometimes very intense, generating emotions perhaps hidden or suppressed. How can the movement of air molecules generate such reactions in us?

In answering that question, Levitin takes the reader on describes the path sound takes from its entry into the ear. Nerve impulses from sound have a number of paths open to them. Widely dispersed areas of the brain process the signals, further triggering a variety of reactions. Much new information about sounds and the brain's reaction to them has come to light in recent years. When the sound is music, the brain actually goes through mathematical calculations to register timbre, pitch and other musical elements.
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brain Stimulant Sept. 5 2006
This book is a remarkable achievement. It provides a compelling and lucid overview of important developments in the science of music. Levitin accomplishes this in singular fashion by providing the reader with personal insights drawn from his experience as a musician, producer, and scientist. There are a number of worthwhile books to consider along this theme but this one truly has a sense of the excitement and inspiration surrounding the research.
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The Rhythm of Hype Jan. 17 2008
By A Customer
I finished this book for two reasons: 1) It was a gift; 2) There was enough musical and neurological trivia scattered throughout to keep me hoping for some grand synthesis. But there I was on the last page, still anticipating something more-- fulfillment, if you will, of the majesty promised by the title, synopsis and scads of reviews. I admit I was pleased to see the author stick it to Stephen Pinker, but disappointed by the repetitive, name-dropping, self-conscious writing style. As a primer on some of the juicier bits of music theory and the human compulsions behind it, this text is more than adequate. However, if you already understand one central idea-- that music profoundly affects the brain because it's simultaneously aural, imaginative and kinetic-- then it's not likely you'll experience a shift in the arc of your thinking.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brainy book on music Aug. 30 2007
If you play a musical instrument or would like to play; if you sing or listen to music; if you have a brain and are even slightly interested in what makes it tick you must buy this book. Read it two or three times or even more, because it will reward you each time. It's worth at least 10,000 hours of practice. Highly recommended.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Musicians are Made Not Born Nov. 11 2007
By Bernie Koenig TOP 500 REVIEWER
As a philosopher and as a musician I loved this book. As a musician I found I could skim the opening chapters but his work on how the brain works when we hear music are excellent. His comparisons to brain functioning while listening to music to how we respond to language and emotion are also fascinating.

The chapter on What Makes a Musician was truly excellent. We need that 10, 000 hours of practice. Even if we have a genetic disposition to music, if we don't practice, we will not achieve anything. His discussion of Mozart in this chapter is really excellent. We call Mozart a genius because he wrote music at an early age. But as Levitin shows, that early music is just that. And as all music historians know, much of that early music was written under the tuteleage of his father, leopold, an acknowledged master music teacher.

I do have a few quibbles. As a philosopher he refers to the work of Paul Churchland. Levitin would have been better off had he gone directly to the prime influence on Chuchland, Wilfrid Sellars. Sellars also presents one of the most sophisticated discussions on category and concept formation.

And in his discussion of the evolutionary role of music, Levitin could have looked at studies done in the wild regarding language and music in apes. In Baboon Metaphysics, authors Cheney and Seyfarth show how complex language skills develop because of complex social relationships, and in The Singing Neanderthals, Steven Mithen provides a compelling argument showing that rhythm and other apsects of music were our earliest forms of language.

Indeed, these books taken together show just how related music and language are, and how important music is to all of us.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read
The author is expert at making a difficult topic like psychology and neuroscience perfectly readable and understandable, more you almost feel like reading a good novel while... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Anne-Marie Burns
4.0 out of 5 stars Music to my Brain
An up to date and easily understood collection of musical conclusions and their neurological implications. Opinionated and direct with lots of familiar musical examples.
Published 12 months ago by ADRIAN E HOFFMAN
4.0 out of 5 stars Learned lots....easy to read
I think this book was very informative and and enjoyable. I am a trained classical musician as well as a music educator with 10 years experience. Read more
Published 14 months ago by gdm123
5.0 out of 5 stars Facinting read
This was very interesting for me. I've been interested in the structure and function of the brain for years. I read this a while ago - now I'm going to read it again. Read more
Published 14 months ago by John Somerville
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Published on Oct. 11 2009 by Wendy L. Law
1.0 out of 5 stars Not worth your money
As a physics grad student and a music/guitar enthusiast, I would describe myself as perfectly belonging to the target audience of this book. Read more
Published on May 15 2008 by EagerReader
4.0 out of 5 stars Music to my eyes...
A very interesting explanation on what makes music sooo attractive to the vast majority of us... the first two chapters are in my opinion, heavy to read (I had to go back several... Read more
Published on Nov. 10 2007 by Othon Leon
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