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

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

by Daniel J. Levitin


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In this groundbreaking union of art and science, rocker-turned-neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explores the connection between music—its performance, its composition, how we listen to it, why we enjoy it—and the human brain.

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. Drawing on the latest research and on musical examples ranging from Mozart to Duke Ellington to Van Halen, he 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

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780452288522
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/28/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 36,631
Product dimensions: 8.06(w) x 5.44(h) x 0.72(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D., is the New York Times bestselling author of This Is Your Brain on MusicThe World in Six SongsThe Organized Mind, and Weaponized Lies. His work has been translated into 21 languages. An award-winning scientist and teacher, he is Founding Dean of Arts & Humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI, a Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley, and the James McGill Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Music at McGill University, Montreal, where he also holds appointments in the Program in Behavioural Neuroscience, The School of Computer Science, and the Faculty of Education. Before becoming a neuroscientist, he worked as a session musician, sound engineer, and record producer working with artists such as Stevie Wonder and Blue Oyster Cult. He has published extensively in scientific journals as well as music magazines such as Grammy and Billboard. Recent musical performances include playing guitar and saxophone with Sting, Bobby McFerrin, Rosanne Cash, David Byrne, Cris Williamson, Victor Wooten, and Rodney Crowell.

Table of Contents

This Is Your Brain On MusicIntroduction
I Love Music and I Love Science—Why Would I Want to Mix the Two?

1. What Is Music?
From Pitch to Timbre

2. Foot Tapping
Discerning Rhythm, Loudness, and Harmony

3. Behind the Curtain
Music and the Mind Machine

4. Anticipation
What We Expect from Liszt (and Ludacris)

5. You Know My Name, Look Up the Number
How We Categorize Music

6. After Dessert, Crick Was Still Four Seats Away from Me
Music, Emotion, and the Reptilian Brain

7. What Makes a Musician?
Expertise Dissected

8. My Favorite Things
Why Do We Like the Music We Like?

9. The Music Instinct
Evolution's #1 Hit

Bibliographic Notes

What People are Saying About This

Oliver Sacks

Endlessly stimulating, a marvelous overview, and one which only a deeply musical neuroscientist could give.... An important book.

From the Publisher

"Endlessly stimulating, a marvelous overview, and one which only a deeply musical neuroscientist could give. . . . An important book."
-Oliver Sacks, M.D.

"I loved reading that listening to music coordinates more disparate parts of the brain than almost anything else - and playing music uses even more! Despite illuminating a lot of what goes on, this book doesn't 'spoil' enjoyment - it only deepens the beautiful mystery that is music."
-David Byrne, founder of Talking Heads and author of How Music Works

"Levitin is a deft and patient explainer of the basics for the non-scientist as well as the non-musician. . . . By tracing music's deep ties to memory, Levitin helps quantify some of music's magic without breaking its spell."
-Los Angeles Times Book Review

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This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 93 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a pure joy to read. It's amazing that a musician decided to become a cognitive psychologist and has revealed the secrets of how music and our brains function. It's written in easy to understand prose that is accessible to musicians and non musicians alike. Well trained musicians will have an easier time reading because they already understand the nuances between musical terms, however it's all explained so that a non musician can understand it. It reminds me of the books that Albert Einstein wrote explaining his theory of relativity for non physicists. Clear, concise information is well presented so the average reader can fully comprehend how music and the brain function. It's a revelation worth discovering if you have any serious interest in music of whatever genre! Enjoy!!!
bahr41 More than 1 year ago
It is very rare to find an individual with the experience in music, psychology, and neuroscience like Daniel Levitin; rocker turned music producer turned neuroscientist. When he was working as a music producer, he became interested in why and how music operates on the human brain. He became so interested that he went back to school to study just that. He studied how the brain turns sounds into patterns that we think of as songs, how we remember those patterns, and how they are stored and bring up many different emotions. Levetin was a part of the discovery of important neural processes that explain why music can touch you so deeply, and believes that our brains seem to have evolved to maximize musical ability. It is great that a person with the credentials and musical background that he has wrote a book to explain why music affects us the way it does in a way that is easy to follow. This is not written just for the study of neuroscience nor only for the study of music, but it is written for the average, everyday music lover. For the reader that may not completely understand the linguistics involved in music, the first chapter goes into detail of some terms that may not be familiar. Terms such as: pitch, reverberation, or timbre. Although this chapter is very helpful as a refresher from junior high music class, it is very long and repetitive. I found myself losing focus and keeping a countdown of pages till it was over which is never a good sign when reading a book. Once past the 50 pages that seem like they were torn from a music textbook, things start to get interesting. He begins by explaining the distinction of the mind, "the part of each of us that embodies our thoughts, hopes, desires, memories, beliefs, and experiences," and the brain, "an organ of the body, a collection of cells and water, chemicals and blood vessels, that resides in the skull. Activity in the brain gives rise to the contents of the mind." He then explains how music reaches the brain and the reactions it causes on different neural regions followed by how the reactions of the brain affect the mind. The book answers many questions that most people have, but do not bother finding the answers to. He describes why songs from our teenage years have a greater impact on us than music from later, why songs get stuck in our heads, he describes them as "ear worms", and why we like the music that we like. This is written very clearly for the non-specialist and certain topics have been simplified to easily understand, but was done in a way where it wasn't overly-simplified. This is a great book for anyone who as ever said, "I like this song." Then followed it up by asking themselves the question, "but why do I like this song?"
SuzeJones58 More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! I'm a fan of brain and cognitive science, having been a psyc. major many years ago. Books such as 'Brain on Music' rely on the science of today to prove what we were only beginning to suspect many years ago. Daniel Levitan must be one of those wonders. With an early background in music, a career as a music business professional and then a return to school to complete a doctorate in music, and then -- of course, this book. He trumps all the other researcher-writers, such as Goleman and Pinker. I just love how these academics slip in little pot-shots at one another -- Levitan pointing out that music is not just a linguistic after-thought and slipping in a little tweak at Pinker. The book explains just enough music theory for the average reader and then really digs into the science of brain structure and physiology that enable us to perceive and understand music. My daughter who is a senior in high school and participating in music classes is now reading the book. The music theory sections are reinforcing and supplementing what she is learning in school. If you are into either music appreciation or brain science then this book is a MUST. Read it - you won't be disappointed.
Dr_C More than 1 year ago
Daniel Levitin has an eclectic background giving validity to his research. In addition his writing style is entertaining especially generously sprinkled with his own experiences with others well-known in psychology of the brain.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A truely technical book about music and how it affects us, not on a superficial level but physically and in every other way. While written for the music professional it also defines it's terminology quite thoroughly so the average person can also understand it. I found it quite interesting but not a casual read. Deep and complicated in parts of it. The only thing I didn't care for were the occasional refernces to evolution which weren't really relevant to the topic at hand. Other than that, an excellent book for the person who wants to delve a little deeper into how our minds work, why and how we formulate music, why music in other places is so different and even why music is so important to the human race.
westermantyler1 More than 1 year ago
Daniel J. Levitin's first New York Times bestseller is quite an intriguing introduction into the vast fields of musical science and neuroscience. I avidly research both of these studies and some of my curiosity is due to this book. Being a musician the premise of this book caught my eye. After getting past the preliminary chapters about the basics of sound and harmony, Levitin delves into fascinating topics of cognitive musical expectations, the neuroscience of rhythm, musical memory, and music's influence on evolution. He speaks in layperson's terms to reach a broader audience and I fully appreciate his efforts. I'm sure he could easily get caught in academia, but he controls his diction and uses thorough analogies to explain complicated scientific complexes. It is a very approachable and inviting way of presenting the complex information he is trying to present to the average reader. Though, in my case, the topic is sure to inspire further readings into the subject. I enjoyed his references to pop culture examples over several decades and they provided perfect examples to the ideas he was referring to. This book and its writing style has encouraged my pursuits into the exciting arena of neuroscience. It has also reinforced my interest in the science of music and how it affects the people of all cultures.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is Your Brain on Music was a solid read. It takes you through the science behind an art. You look at what makes noise into music, the psychology behind listening to music, and even how the brain of people who play music works. All in all it is a good book. But if you are going to read it, plan to learn a lot, because the book has quite a lot of information. Unless you have a musical background, there is a very good chance of getting lost in the language. That's why the first chapter attempts to take you through a brief summary of music terminology. The key word of that sentence was brief, because that's what it was. The definitions of the terms didn't manage to cover the topic well enough for any novice to understand thoroughly. So I recommend, if you want to enjoy this book, have some kind of musical background, where terms like triads, pitch, melody, and timber, are not foreign. But if you do have a musical knowledge, you will enjoy this work. It does a good job of connecting the artistic side of music, with the scientific. It very well examines the scientific reasons we all enjoy music; one form or another. But my biggest complaint was the authors writing style. Daniel Levitin has a great knowledge and understanding of the topic, but not how to convey those ideas. I found his writing style to be bland, and very similar to a text book. There was little to no emotion in his writing style. Or at least that is what it felt like. The saving grace for this novel is that it has such amazing information to give and that as you read about specific bands, like the Beatles, you can imagine their music playing. If it wasn't for the great information and my love for the topic of music, I wouldn't have enjoyed this novel. So if you have a musical knowledge, enjoy science, and don't mind a semi-bland writing style, then you will enjoy This is Your Brain on Music. 3.5 out of 5.
Nicholas_E_Sparks More than 1 year ago
More like a well-written textbook, this book presents some insight into more theoretical and applicable model of music. Levitin certainly exploits my curiosity of music, but the book has limited merit beyond an informative piece. I applaud his ability to embellish music as a more useful and complex art in a practical way, but there was little risk taken by the author to extend music beyond its aesthetic realm.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really couldn't figure out the point of the book. I had read that it was "technical." Being a musician myself, while I fully understood the "technical" part, the author's use of musical terminology is confusing and frankly - boring. I don't see how a non-musician could enjoy or learn anything about MUSIC from this book.
flexatone on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Good popular science books have to strike a sort of balance between the specialized language of the subject matter and plain language to describe it. This is Brain on Music, though, is both too vague for experts and too general for the unitiated. The last chapter, however, is truly exciting and strikes this balance very well. I wish Levitin had started from here. The bulk of the book has preliminary kind of feeling to it.
sjmccreary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Written by a music recording engineer turned neuroscientist, this book discusses the different ways we are impacted by the music we hear. He explains some basic music theory and shows us the scientific evidence that even nonmusicians are aware of changes in key, rhythm, melodic phrasing and harmonics. When we listen to music, our entire brains become active, from the oldest, "reptilian brain" cerebellum to the highest, most recently developed frontal cortex, and many areas in between. He argues that, contrary to some opinions, music is not useless consequence of human evolution. He takes the stand that music was a basic step in human development, perhaps even earlier than spoken language.I found the book to be well-written. The scientific concepts are explained clearly and are easy to understand. The musical concepts were also presently clearly and with dozens of examples. I enjoyed it very much.
jwhenderson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Daniel J. Levitin¿s This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession is a fascinating study about what happens in the brain when we listen to music. Levitin, a neuroscientist and former session musician and producer, has crafted an excellent study that both scientists and lay readers whose grasp of science is somewhat limited will find informative.Perhaps best of all, Levitin¿s book doesn¿t ruin the enjoyment of listening to music.Levitin primarily takes a thematic approach in examining how the brain functions when listening to music. Although the first chapter, which explains the basics of music like pitch, timbre, meter, may be sow-going for the musically-challenged, the remaining chapters are enlightening. With topics including how the brain remembers and recalls music, why music can impact our moods, and why musical preferences can vary from person to person, Levitin explains the processes occurring in the brain without overwhelming the reader with overly-technical and academically-dry details.Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the final one, which makes a case for the evolutionary origins of music, arguing against scientists who believe music was a happy accident or an unplanned byproduct of language development. Levitin shows how music may have played a role in human survival and evolution, including aiding in cognitive development, serving as a key factor in promoting early human interactions, and giving musical males an extra advantage in the grand reproductive race.Written for non-experts who might not know the difference between a hippocampus and a hippopotamus, This Is Your Brain On Music successfully manages to explain how we listen to music without reducing music to a series of neurons and brain waves. Levitin writes in an intelligent but not overbearing or condescending tone; his passion for music is apparent throughout the book. An excellent integration of science and music, Levitin¿s book examines the brain¿s role in listening to and processing music without downplaying any of the emotions we experience when listening to music. I enjoyed the book, particularly the science of the brain and its relation to music.
VVilliam on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A good overview of some general mind concepts, applied to music. Also a good introduction to the structure of music. There are some great tidbits in the book, like needing 10,000 hours to be an expert at something, but overall the book wanders too much, especially into Levitin's personal history. I think the book could have been much shorter and more focused. The best concepts are pattern recognition, how we like/dislike complex music, music in evolution, and emotion. But overall it's hard to go back and bring out the best parts as the book isn't structured very well. Also, be prepared to try to remember/YouTube lots of classic rock, especially the Beatles, if you want to follow his references to songs.
rivkat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fairly readable overview of the basics of music and what we know about the brain¿s response to music. It¿s best at making the points that (1) we are all experts at listening to music, even if the formal vocabulary escapes us, and (2) the modern separation of music from movement has distracted us from the deep connection between the two¿music comes from the body as well as the brain. Near the end he gallops pretty fast through the supposed evolutionary benefits of music, though this evo-psych stuff always has a just-so flavor for me so that¿s always going to be the part I think makes the least sense. (For example, did you know that you can explain the role of music in human evolution solely in terms of how it helped prehistoric men win prehistoric women¿s affections, demonstrating males¿ ability to perform the complex motions required to hunt successfully and their ability to cooperate with others? This is totally why women can¿t sing or play instruments, and why some kinds of music are nonetheless gendered female in modern culture! Is that what people mean when they say ¿trufax¿? To be fair, Levitin is only responsible for the first sentence of this aside, but that first sentence is¿without the awareness that some musical bodies are getting left out of the story except as choosers¿not an unfair summary of his coverage of the topic.)
librarythingaliba on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. It got a little biographical at times, although I suppose that made it more readable. The explanations of how music fits into the brain and even the basics of music itself have really opened my eyes (and ears) to new things. Very glad I got through this one!
bookwyrmm on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I am not one for Science books, but I do love music, so I thought I would give this a try. Levitin does a wonderful job of explaining both music and the brain for the lay reader. Very in-depth and informative, but still very readable and enjoyable.
JeffV on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Levitin is a recording engineer turned scientist. In this book, he takes a comprehensive look at the science of music, from it's component level (pitch, beat, timbre, tone, etc.) to the neuroscience behind what is happening when we listen and play music (and how those with disorders such as Williams Syndrome and Autism show differing results) to the evolutionary benefits leading it's development in the human species.Of these three major divisions in the book, I enjoyed the first part (musical definition) because of his anecdotal experience as a recording engineer. Levitin brings in samples from all music genres, from classical to the Beatles to the Ramones. The middle if the book discussed which parts of the brain are responsible for various elements of listening to and playing music. While some of this caused my eyes to glaze over, some of the revelations were interesting, particularly his assertion that we all become "expert listeners" to music by age 6, but developing musicianship skills can take a fair bit longer. He also discusses the 10,000-hour theory (that it takes 10,000 hours of doing a thing to become good enough to achieve greatness), suggesting that it more or less follows suit in music as in other artistic forms. Early on, Levitin discusses an episode from a visit to an African tribe, where the idea of passively listening to music was unheard of (everyone sings, everyone dances, everyone at least bangs a drum). Music was completely participatory, and they couldn't fathom it being any other way. At the end of the book, Levitin returns to this theme in postulating a theory on how music has evolutionary importance in the rise of the species, refuting claims by Steven Pinker that music was a useless parasite that developed on the back of language. Levitin trots out archeological evidence suggesting that music actually preceded spoken language by a fair bit, and then returns to the tribal example, claiming that such participatory music would be a display of virility. He then transposes the notion to modern times, where popular [male] musicians attract huge followings of the opposite sex willing to sleep with them...but these same women, by and large, are not interested in musicians for long-term relationships. This suggests that the genetic makeup embodied in a popular musician is a stronger attractant than more pragmatic considerations such as life-long stability. At some point in time, this must have been one and the tribal dances are feats of endurance lasting hours, a primeval musician may have been showing his stamina that translated into prowess at the hunt, when a wounded animal might have been chased for sometime before it expired.All in all, I think Levitin made a good case for the evolutionary benefits of music. It's been about 20 years since I've read Pinker's The Language Instinct, and I wonder if current evidence would have him reconsider his harsh stance.
DragonFreak on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If you ask someone if music is a big part of their life, he or she will most likely say yes. But why is that so? We know that music has been around since the dawn of humankind, but did we create music, or did music create us? Daniel Levitin is a neuroscientist and throughout the book he argues that we humans would not be who we are if it wasn¿t for music, and he¿ll prove this by both the scientific and physiological properties of music and the brain.In this book, you¿ll see the answers to these questions:¿What are the basic components of music including rhythm, pitch, and timbre?¿Why do certain emotions and memories are associated with music we like?¿How do teenagers get attached to music and how it all begins with before we are born?¿Does music really make you smarter? (aka The Mozart Effect)¿Why do songs get stuck in our head?¿How some abilities and disabilities like Absolute Pitch and Williams syndrome affect music?¿What does the cerebellum, the oldest part of the brain, have to do with music and how does it relate to reptiles?¿What makes a musician and how much practice does it take to be great?¿If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it makes a sound?¿How does human and animal courtship us music and other forms of creativity naturally.Levitin explains everything in such a way that everything is crystal clear. His goal is to simplify things without oversimplifying. If you¿ve always been curious of how music works, how it affects our brain, and why we like it so much, then read this book to discover what your brain is on music. You won¿t be disappointed.Rating: Four and a Half Stars **** ½
Meggo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A highly technical yet highly fascinating look at music, and how we process music in the brain. The first couple of chapters were admittedly rather dry, and filled with all sorts of music theory that I dodged as a child, but they lay the groundwork for subsequent chapters. Written not from a physiological point of view, but rather a psycho-neurological point of view, the book had some interesting insights. One of the more provocative ideas was that musical talent can be innate, but more often it is the product of copious practice - 10,000 hours worth, to be precise. I know some professional musicians who are sure to agree. Worth reading if you're interested in how the brain processes information, and preferably if you're a music lover as well.
luvdancr on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A really interesting and informative yet fun way of really explaining many details about music and why us as humans are so interested in it.I recommend this book for anyone who has ever seen the connections between music and it's prevelance and need for it in our lives. i loved it
abraxalito on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
this was highly enjoyable, mainly because the author has crossed over from the practical side of music (playing, recording, producing) to the theory of how we come to enjoy it (neuroscience). This gives him a rather unusual perspective, being a bridge between two quite distinct worlds. I was impressed by his almost encyclopaedic knowledge of music - both contemporary and classical more than by his knowledge of neuroscience. He rather over labours the cognitive model (the brain does computations, a la Pinker) even though that isn't one that accounts for the most experimental evidence - this is my main criticism of an otherwise excellent work. If only he could have a long chat with Walter Freeman and then bring out the second edition along with a website which hosts mp3s of the musical examples he cites!
sixteendays on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Incredibly disappointing. Not anywhere near as light as expected. Much more about neuroscience than about music at all - the author even goes on tangents that have nothing at all to do with music.
fnielsen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Levitin presents some interesting observations on the link between brain and music, but for my liking he spends too much time explaining introductory material.
CraigSeasholes on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
wonderful speculation and research on the ways music makes its home in the head and heart
adamallen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The interest that I held in This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession goes beyond the typical novel or non-fiction piece of work. When I picked it up at Barnes & Noble and read the inside flap, my hot damn! alert went off. When I read the Introduction, it may be safe to say that my heart palpitated. Since about the age of eight or so, I've been a music fan of abnormal proportions. Saying it was/is my "thing" is an understatement. I had over 2000 CDs until recently when I took them all digital and distributed the physical discs to friends, stores, and others. When I was teased with, "Levitin unravels the mystery of our perennial love affair with music", I was sold.I'm pleased to say that This is Your Brain... far surpassed my expectations. It seemed that every page held something else for me to learn. I got a two chapter primer in music theory (so THAT'S how that works!). I got two or three chapters on the brain's reaction to music and how the two party together. This was followed by a chapter or two on what gives music the ability to trigger emotions. Finally, it closed with a chapter on music's role in human evolution.Let's just say that if you love music, you should read the book. If you love science, you should read the book. If you love music and science, open another tab in your browser and order this thing NOW. As a fan of both, it hit the sweet spot for me.Interestingly enough, it goes beyond just the music aspect though. In providing a context for most of the research that Levitin describes, he gives some other scientific tidbits that expanded my understanding of things such as the theory of evolution, the brain development of children, the evolution of dietary cravings, the adoption of spoken languages, etc. One such passage is, "Humans didn't evolve a liking for cheesecake, but we did evolve a liking for fats and sugars, which were in short supply during our evolutionary history. Humans evolved a neural mechanism that caused our reward centers to fire when eating sugars and fats because in the small quantities they were available, they were beneficial to our well being." While these passages weren't rocket science, when I came across them, I'd say - Now I know!I'm a curious person who likes to make sense of things. It's fun for me to learn about how things became the way they are and how they tie together. When it comes to music and our connectedness to it, this book gets top marks. I have only one word for it - BRILLIANT.It will be re-read on multiple occassions in the future.