This Is Your Brain On Music

Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music is a well-established author and a professor of Music and Art. Levitin thinks of cognitive science as experimental philosophy. Levitin chooses to investigate music, which adds to the appeal, but it also adds to the significance of why he asks to investigate the subject in the first place. No known human culture now or anytime in the recorded past lacked music. Point blank.

What Levitin takes from his esoteric view of music is actually straightforward: where we find the earliest evidence of human culture, we also find evidence of music. Music is as old as human culture, and it appears where human culture appears. Where humans have been, there has been music; and where humans are, music is. Where humans are, music is—but, even more striking, the experience of music is pervasive in each human being that experiences it. Levitin thinks our perception and appreciation of music can tell us something fundamental about our humanity. The reader is a writer, the listener a speaker, in much the same way that a fully engaged music listener is a maker of music. Thinking about thinking lies at the heart of philosophy, and making it popular without simplifying it has a heredity as old as the first and highest revered Philosophers in history, namely Plato and Socrates.

This is related to another question Levitin poses early in the book, that of the relationship between music and science—or in other words the relationship between art and science. Why mix the two? He asks. The answer brings “art” and “science” together around an experimental attitude that reinvents and reinvigorates the mystery that is your brain and its kinetic structure.

We must listen!

At the very least, it favors an understanding of musical perception as active. But it also points to a field in which to explore the activity experimentally rather than simply asserting it. By investigating perceptual mechanisms in listening to music and comparing them to mechanisms in making it, we may learn something of the working of perceptual mechanisms in a more general sense. This is precisely what Levitin does, and the results are significant not only for a science of music but also for an experimentally grounded philosophy of perception, with implications for aesthetics, epistemology, and language- so many areas of study.

Even if we do not think of music as language he suggests that we consider the possibility that something similar happens in what we do identify as language. Reading written language or listening to spoken language, for example, is not passively receptive; people learn differently. Some are visual, auditory, tactile or methodical learners. That is where so much evidence lies in the obvious positive effects music therapy has on Autistic students. (Gordon, 2011)

Many people who claim to know nothing about music can identify the music they like and distinguish it from the music they don’t. And many, as experiments conducted by Levitin and others demonstrate can also reproduce the music they like with remarkable accuracy. Part of the challenge here is to the understanding of “expertise.” Music is so intrinsically a part of human experience that all humans share some musical ability, just as we all share some linguistic ability. (This speaks to the African proverb: “If you can walk, you can dance; if you can talk, you can sing.”)

The implications for definition apply as much to “humanity” as it does to “music,” and this is profoundly relevant in our increasingly instrumental age. He doesn’t leave readers guessing what the book is about. At the end of the introduction, he writes, “Your brain on music is a way to understand the deepest mysteries of human nature. There will be philosophers who want to argue about “human nature,”

Levitin will provide substantial material for the argument in the process of writing “the story of how brains and music co-evolved—what music can teach us about the brain, what the brain can teach us about music, and what both can teach us about ourselves” When Levitin asks, “What is music?” Levitin works his way back from timbre to rhythm. In Levitin’s account of music, the equivalent debate revolves around both concepts by distinguishing music from visual art.

Levitin adds the dimension of time to his hypothesis. Painting is in nature as surely as music. If rhythm and meter move music forward, what moves painting? The definition, first, extends the realm of music beyond the human. First is the significance of silence to the experience of music. This is implicit in Levitin’s discussion, since rhythm and meter depend as much on silence as on sound- or dissonance. Recalling the definition of music as organized sound, Levitin writes that “the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic.” (Pg 109)(Levitin) Levitin’s argument, which points not toward a simple matching of patterns “out there” with patterns “in here” but to a process of constructing patterns in which mind, brain, and the world are actively engaged collectively.

This Is Your Brain on Music is an accessible read, an in-depth analysis of contemporary research in cognitive science as it relates to music. There is an intimate connection between humanity and music that reaches across both time and space and may well justify an even stronger claim than the “obsession” of Levitin’s subtitle. It may be the case that we are not only obsessed with music but also formed by it.

Q & A


Q n A with Rep Bobby Schilling by Lucy betina


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