Monday, April 9, 2012

Book Review: This Is Your Brain On Music

Book Review: "This is Your Brain on Music" by Daniel Levitin
UPDATED: August 21, 2016


I am not a musician and do not sing (well), but like most people, I do love music. Both science and music have been long-time fascinations of mine, and when a certain book was spotted, the urge to buy it could not be resisted. "This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession" by Daniel J. Levitin is that book. It was a bit hefty of a book for me at the time I purchased it, but the idea of seeing the awesome connections between music and science was worth the risk. My usual style of book reviews begins with a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book and concludes with my thoughts. However, I have decided to invert this particular review to place my thoughts before the chapter-by-chapter summary because it may not be so obvious as to the reason why such a book would appear on a blog about defending the truth of the Christian worldview. Here are my thoughts followed by the chapter-by-chapter summary:

Reviewer's Thoughts

This book was an incredible read. The combination and connection of an art and science was quite thrilling and fascinating. It was extremely thought-provoking yet not difficult to understand. From the perspective of a Christian, this book is a "must-get". In our evangelistic efforts to defend the existence of God, we often like to use the argument from beauty- specifically appealing to music. The content in this book, though, can be used to demonstrate the meticulous design that was required for music to not only be possible but to be appreciated as "beautiful" by humans. Every system that we know of with this level of intricacy and this many interdependent parts are the work of intelligent engineers. And the systems that add beauty to those engineered system are the work of the most talented architects. Therefore, it is reasonable also to believe that the entire system that is responsible for music, from the physics responsible for sound creation to the auditory system's ability to receive it, is the work of an engineer- one who, in order to create physics and the universe must transcend both. This transcendent engineer is also responsible for the portion of the system that appreciates music for its beauty and emotional connections (the brain and mind); therefore, it is also reasonable to conclude that this transcendent architect is also a personal being who desires a relationship with those He endowed with this ability. The only option for such a being is the God of the Bible. It is only in the Christian God that all of the scientific data provided by Levitin can find a reasonable and consistent explanation.

If you are an apologist and musician, this book will be "mind-candy" to you. It will provide you with a way to appeal to science when defending God's existence to other musicians. If you are just an apologist, it will provide more teleological evidence for God's existence that can be appealed to. I cannot recommend "This is Your Brain On Music" highly enough.

Recommended Books for Further Reading:

Who Was Adam: A Creation Model Approach to the Origin of Humanity
Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science
Where the Conflict Reality Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism

Chapter-by-Chapter Summary:

Book Introduction

Levitin introduces his book by telling the reader of his fascination with music, psychology, and neurology. He addresses anticipated cringing from musicians who may believe that the art should not be reduced to dry, mechanistic science. He shows how artists and scientists hold many things in common, and how their respective disciplines can be used to inform the other.

Chapter 1: What is Music?: From Pitch to Timbre

Levitin begins his investigation of the brain and music by explaining the basic terms of music and music theory to his readers. His choice to begin this way is quite helpful to someone not familiar with the technical side of music. He does not simply assume that the reader is a musician and understands all the terms and concepts.

He started by explaining that music is, most basically, organized sound. A combination of sound frequencies played in a particular order. He goes on to define everything from tempo to rhythm, from timbre to harmony. He explains which of those are actual attributes of sound, and which are imposed by the brain. He discusses the complexity of the relationships among each of these attributes.

He explains the auditory system and how sound gets from the outside world to the mind of the listener. Levitin goes into some detail on the complexity of each of the components responsible for the experience of sound, from the ear canal to the auditory cortex in the brain.

Chapter 2: Foot Tapping: Discerning rhythm, Loudness, and Harmony

Chapter 1 focuses mainly on the frequencies of organized sound, how the auditory system senses them, and the brain interprets them. In Chapter 2, Levitin focuses on the the rhythm and the recognition of harmonies and melodies. He explains the difference between the rhythm and tempo, then how a melody is the combination of the rhythm and the frequency difference between one note and the next.

In this chapter he also explains what musicians mean when they say that they will play a piece in a different "key" or "tempo" and how the brain still recognizes it as the same song even though it is performed differently than what the listener is used to hearing. He also goes into the difference between consonance and dissonance, and the brain's reaction to each.

He draws upon some of the Gestalt psychologists to explain the brain's recognition of patterns to be able to recognize different instruments playing the same piece, but yet still recognizing them as being different instruments.

Chapter 3: Behind the Curtain: Music and the Mind Machine

In chapter 3, Levitin changes focus from music to the brain, itself. He explains that the brain is so complex that it defies complete understanding right now, but he goes into great detail (for a popular book) about the inner workings of the brain. He covers everything from the neuron configurations to the plasticity (ability to change over time) of the brain. He explains how some sounds are interpreted as being from a dangerous source, while others are from a safe or neutral source.

He makes it clear, though, that his fascination is not with the brain, but the mind. He addresses the distinction and provides a couple arguments for there being no actual difference. He then goes into the intrinsic unreliability of the senses. He brings optical illusions as evidence for this. He then explains how the brain has the ability to not only deceive, but to accurately fill in missing information that the senses do not detect.

He explains that even though the brain is not perfectly reliable, it is extremely sensitive to the complexity of the many different sounds that we hear and the timing of each to give us information about the environment. He then explains that music is merely just the brain taking the different sounds that it receives and projecting an "image" of the environment to the mind.

Chapter 4: Anticipation: What We Exxpect from Liszt (and Ludacris)

Chapter 4 connects the neurology from chapter 3 to the music theory of chapters 1 and 2. He shows that the brain anticipates certain things based on what it receives. He explains the concept of "schemas" that the brain develops over time and how music can fit or violate those expectations.

Chapter 5: You Know My Name, Look up the Number: How We Categorize Music

Chapter 5 addresses how our brains determine which "genre" a musical piece fits. Levitin uses this chapter to explain the different theories of how memories are formed and retrieved. The two competing theories that he goes over are the constructivist (the brain ignores details and preserves only the basic information- details are reconstructed or invented at recall) and the "tape-recording" theory (the brain records every single detail, and those details can be accurately retrieved with the proper stimulant).

He discusses the different studies that support the different theories and the functions of the brain that support those ideas. He also shows what stands as evidence against the theories, and finally lands on a theory that combines both. He uses this as the groundwork for explaining the current theories on how the brain develops categories, thus placing different music into different genres.

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

In chapter 6 Levitin addresses emotion and music. He points to studies that indicate that the cerebellum and its amygdala are the centers for emotional processes. Here is where Levitin begins to try to explain why music is so powerful- from the naturalistic point of view. He points to research that the cerebellum was present in the oldest of creatures, and explains that different emotional reactions had survival advantage, thus those capabilities were passed down from generation to generation.

He goes into even more detail about the complexity of the auditory system in this chapter, explaining its survival advantage. He also explains the connection between the auditory system and the emotional centers of the brain and how that boosts survival chances even more.

Chapter 7: What Makes a Musician?: Expertise Dissected

Chapter 7 is Levitin's discussion regarding the "nature vs. nurture" debate. He examines the ideas that musical ability is a natural talent or the product of much training...or both. This is the one chapter that has mainly anecdotal evidence rather than hard evidence from neurology. Levitin explains that this is because of the fact that brain scans have an extremely difficult time distinguishing between the causes and the effects. He also draws upon different theories of neuroplasticity and memory before concluding that both talent and training are necessary to make a good musician.

Chapter 8: My Favorite Things: Why Do We Like the Music We Like?

In chapter 8 Levitin begins explaining how our likes and dislikes are developed over time. He discusses the famous "Mozart Effect" and the studies that led to its conclusions. He explains the flaws in the studies, and how they may not be necessarily relied upon. However, he did point out that music listening does have an effect on the cerebellum (emotions), and certain music will strike different emotions- determining what we find enjoyable and not.

Levitin points out that many people listen to music in social groups, and he speculates on different motives for doing it in groups. But he concludes (via the effects music has on the brain), that society can determine what kind of music a person will like and what they won't. He explains that since children and teens have the highest level of neuroplasticity (ability of the brain to change), that their preferences are the most easy to influence.

He also goes back to anticipation. He explains that if music is too predictable (via the schemas) that it becomes boring. He explains that good musicians will violate anticipation every now and then, but then fulfill it before the piece is complete. This allows for the piece to be exciting but satisfying to the listener.

Chapter 9: The Music Instinct: Evolution's #1 Hit

In the final chapter, Levitin attempts to offer explanations about how the existence of music has survived the cold process of natural selection. He begins by quoting several people who believe that music has absolutely no evolutionary purpose and it should be leaving the scene shortly. However, Levitin provides alternatives to this idea. He offers that music and dancing helped in sexual selection- a female choosing a worthy mate. He speculates that since music is a "mover" of the body, that dance may have been used by males to demonstrate cardiovascular superiority- leading the female to understand that he was a skilled hunter. Levitin also offered that the participation in music was a sign of a possession of an over-abundance of life resources by a male, thus being appealing to a potential female mate.

He concludes the book by explaining that music is not only a pastime of art and beauty, but that it was a vital part in the survival of the human species.


Again, I highly recommend this book for just about anyone interested in music, science, and their connections. You certainly will not be disappointed.

Check out the NEW Book Reviews Page for more.

Thanks to Brian Auten at Apologtics 315 for originally publishing this review on his site. This review is only one of many in a project by Auten to build a solid collection of reviews of books of interest to Christian apologists. His collection grows on a weekly basis; check it out here.

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