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This is your Brain on Music Book Commentary

cheffernan's picture

This is your Brain on Music investigates the neurological mechanisms that contribute to the human experience of listening to music as well as the mechanisms that make music pleasurable. Music, as Daniel J. Levitin, describes at the beginning of the book is known to every person and in every culture, yet despite this familiarity, and in some cases infatuation with the subject, many feel unprepared to discuss music, let alone play an instrument or sing. Levitin attributes this dichotomy to the feeling “[intimidated] by such jargon” [1], but notes that every person is able to discuss what type of music they like without using the technical terms that are considered daunting. This Is Your Brain on Music compiles research done about the psychological and neurological effects of music, both listening and playing, as well as including Levitin’s personal experiences with other musicians to help further the discussion.

Levitin discusses many aspects of music, the fundamentals and terms, as well as how music affects the nervous system, most specifically the brain and the various structures. Originally, I only considered the auditory cortex to be the target structure for music, yet the neurological effects produced by music permeate much farther. Connections from the auditory cortex traverse the “brain stem, cerebellum and [then] the higher-level centers of the brain” [the frontal cortex] [2] as well as the mesolimbic system, which contain the nucleus accumbens, whose role is the dispersion of the neurotransmitter dopamine [3]. (The current neurological theories suggest that dopamine is involved in the experience of pleasure and positive moods states.) Of these structures, I found the connection to the cerebellum to be the most unexpected and interesting because its main function is in the coordination of events; however Levitin presented his own research along with some done by his colleagues that support his argument by showing through its connections with the frontal cortex and the limbic system, the cerebellum helps aid the experience of pleasurable emotions by increasing the transmission of dopamine, which correlates to an increase in the degree of pleasure experienced, which is why many people resort to music to improve their mood [3].

Through all of the information presented in the book, the involvement of the cerebellum in the experience of pleasure was the most astonishing and interesting to me. Prior to his explanation of the cerebellum’s role, he recounts a conversation held with Francis Crick, where the role of the cerebellum was discussed in regards to the experience of musical emotion; Levitin accounts Crick’s final words as their conversation was cut short, “‘Look at the connections…’” [5]. Crick’s advice implied to look at the connections between brain structures, and his advice is so simple yet so complicated due to the infinite ways that the brain can be wired based on personal experiences, as discussed in class as well as in This Is Your Brain on Music. The idea that the cerebellum could be connected to structures not directly relating to coordination of movement, like the mesolimbic system, the prefrontal cortex, and the auditory cortex never crossed my mind.

When learning neuroanatomy, the primary functions of the structure are presented because of the innumerable connections possible, yet the idea of connections existing outside of the primary connection was one that never occurred to me. Upon closer consideration, it seems obvious that the cerebellum and other structures would be connected to other brain structures outside of their immediate function. I think this idea is very important to include in the instruction of neurology because although in class we stated that there are an immeasurable number of possible connections, I always assumed that meant within a certain system of related functions. The cerebellum’s relation to the nucleus accumbens, I feel, is a perfect example of the interconnected pathways of the brain, because the cerebellum is taught to be mainly a part of a physical system and the nucleus accumbens as more a part of an emotional system, and the integration I think by showing just even a few examples, this being a key one, would help exemplify the systems interrelationships.

In class, we discussed the visual perceptual system and if what we are seeing is reality or merely a manifestation of the nervous system. In This Is Your Brain on Music, the auditory perceptual system was discussed with many of the same points used for emphasis as used in our discussion of the visual perceptual system. Our conceptions of “reality” are based on what we perceive through our senses. Levitin argues that our visual and auditory perceptual systems evolved to help our ancestors identify and escape potentially threatening stimuli. With all of the sounds that are apart of everyday life, the visual perceptual system needs to be able to be selective for certain sounds; most of the time the information being processed is actually being pieced together from fragments into the most probable sequence [5].

Levitin validates this idea of probability of fragments with research done by Richard Warren, where he recorded a sentence, cut out a portion and inserted static in its place on the recoding. When the tape was replayed for the subjects of the experiment, nearly everyone reported hearing the complete sentence as well as the static, with a large number of participants uncertain of when the static was on the recording [5]. The auditory perceptual system was able to account for the missing piece and produce the most probable outcome, which ended up being right. This shows how our perceptual systems, both auditory and visual, alter the information provided of what truly exists in the world and how ‘reality’ is fashioned by varying perceptions and is unique to every individual.

The final forum topic for the semester was to describe what reality meant and based on topics discussed in class about the visual perceptual system and what I learned in This Is Your Brain on Music about the auditory perceptual system, reality is not constant. While there are many consistencies among people’s realties, no one will ever be able to be certain about the degrees of variance in one person’s reality. Perceptual systems developed to help escape more primitive dangers than we currently face today, yet these systems are continuously evolving, but how? As mentioned before, music has been a part of nearly every human culture and will continue to hold a place, but as music evolves will the brain’s musical devices evolve along with it?

We will never know how much our brain has evolved in response to the changing music styles and instruments, but by continuing research in music, like the kind that Levitin and his colleagues have done, we can see how the brain structures and connections as well as how the perceptual systems respond to dramatic cultural changes that humans have experienced throughout their history. This Is Your Brain on Music brings the scientific research of a subject that impacts everyone to the public and combines two subjects that seem daunting for discussion: music and neurology and interweaves these two distinct subjects into a way that makes a beautiful symphony.


[1] Levitin, D. J. (2006). This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. New York: Dutton. 9.
[2] Levitin, 2006. 102.
[3] Levitin, 2006. 187.
[4] Levitin, 2006. 185.
[5] Levitin, 2006. 99.


Paul Grobstein's picture

reality: visual, auditory, and scientific

"When learning neuroanatomy, the primary functions of the structure are presented because of the innumerable connections possible, yet the idea of connections existing outside of the primary connection was one that never occurred to me ..."

Maybe neuroanatomy too is "pieced together from fragments into the most probable sequence"?