Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Book Commentary: Levitin's 'This is Your Brain on Music'

Jackie Marano's picture

      “It’s a shame that many people are intimidated by the jargon musicians, music theorists, and cognitive scientists throw around. There is specialized vocabulary in every field… But in the case of music, music experts and scientists could do a better job of making their work accessible” claims Daniel J. Levitin in his 2006 book This is Your Brain on Music. In this work, Levitin examines the intimately related realms of art and science to intensively investigate the role of music in the modern life and history of the global human population. While he emphasizes that his purpose in writing this book was to provide the reader with a thorough and well-rounded exploration of the role of music in our lives, Levitin immediately (and intentionally) underscores that in intensive considerations such as this, less is often more. In a world where every field of inquiry is becoming increasingly specialized and sophisticated, it is also becoming more difficult for those who do not participate directly to fully understand and appreciate the essence of the subject of inquiry itself.

      As someone who has been an active performer of music just three years fewer than she has been a casual listener, I might consider myself to be a part-time participant in such an inquiry; I have an immense amount of experience as both a performer and a listener, but I have very limited knowledge about music theory, the applications of physics and science to music, and the art and technicalities associated with composing music. However, even as someone who has not delved into the more academic domain within the field of music study, I can attest to the fact that Levitin’s unpretentious examination of the greater role of music in the everyday lives of humans is quite powerful, and that his careful attention to the bigger picture so powerful that I found myself modifying some of the perceptions about music that I have held all of my life.

      Is music “a decoration living parasitically on the fringe of human nature” or is it “an obsession at the heart of human nature” because the human brain is “hardwired for music”? Although it may initially seem basic, Levitin’s decision to disassemble the very sounds (though not in a complicated or unintelligible fashion) that constitute and define music is fundamentally essential; breaking down music into sounds, and sounds into its more subtle components is critical to understanding the intricate way in which both consciously and unconsciously define music and our own musical preferences. At an elementary level and without previous study of music, the average human is aware that music can exist at different volumes, rhythms, and tempos (speed), and that some combinations of notes, pitches, and melodies have greater appeal (both within and among individuals) than others. What I found most fascinating, however, is Levitin’s emphasis that the grand majority of us are unaware of all of the factors that influence our modern tendency towards certain forms of music, and our evolutionary tendency towards music in general.

      Levitin asserts that the components of ‘pitch’ (frequency of a tone), ‘key’ (hierarchy of tones in a musical piece), and ‘loudness’ (amplitude of a tone) that constitute sound are “purely psychological constructs” that exist in the brain. What Levitin did not specifically identify as constructions of the brain are components of sound such as ‘timbre’ that allows us to identify with ease when two different instruments are playing simultaneously, yet producing the same one musical tone or sound. Levitin also highlights additional ‘real’ features of music of which we may not be conscious; this includes a consideration of how ‘reverberation’ components (the combined effect of our distance from the music source and the size or composition of the room or location), ‘meter’ components (how rhythm and loudness is metered in the brain), and ‘harmony’ components (why certain blends of sound and notes are soothing or pleasing, and others are disturbing) contribute to our individual and widespread preferences. From Levitin’s discussion of the constituents of sound and music, I found myself reflecting often on several topics that both we as a class had considered over the course of the semester, and that I had individually investigated for my other web papers for the class.

      One of my immediate reactions to Levitin’s identification of the components of sound itself is that such a discussion quite rich and fruitful because we appear to know much more about such interactions and processing of sounds/music in the brain. My investigations of the underlying reasons or meaning of tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and for different preferences of scent were much more open-ended, as there is much that has yet to be discovered to better explain such phenomena. Additionally, it seems identifying the intricacies and technicalities of sound were of great benefit to the overall discussion of how we perceive music and the reasons for our behavioral outputs. What is remarkable is that Levitin poses a question (with respect to music) that is identical in nature to one that I had posed with respect to our olfactory system: why and how is it that humans tend to like and dislike perceptions uniformly, but that we all have our own unique and personal preferences for what we perceive? Both Levitin and I had referenced the fact that the perceptions of music and smells, respectively, have general appeal that may have cultural or evolutionary underpinnings, but that the more personal preferences are those that conjure up memories with associated emotions. In my opinion, the greater knowledge that we possess of the components of sound allow for a much more quantifiable (and perhaps credible) attempt at explaining what we observe. The lack of understanding of how scents can be broken down or deciphered in the brain limits in some respects, our ability to tell a credible story that links such observations.

      One issue however, that I had with Levitin’s characterizations of the components of sound is that some “purely psychological constructs” while other appeared not to be. I immediately thought of our first neurobiology class where we stated that everything that is real to us is a construction of the brain. I revisited and validated this idea in my research on tinnitus, when I argued that although an outsider may not be able to hear the ringing in your ears, there is no reason why this ‘head noise’ should be considered less real or less valid of a ‘sound’ than that which is more commonly perceived. In class, we decided that even though we perceived a yellow dot in the center of a bunch of red dots when we looked directly at the image, it was just as much a reality that the yellow dot disappeared when we put this image out of the center of our visual focus. Again, I revisited the idea of what is a construction of the brain and what is not in my research on the olfactory system; although we may prefer a scent when it is labeled ‘cheddar cheese’ to this identical scent when it is labeled ‘body odor,’ there is something fundamentally real about the way we are interpreting or processing signals. In terms of scent, I highlighted in my research that perhaps it is impossible to estimate the degree to which our sense of smell communicates reality to if we were to isolate this sense; our sense of smell appeared to compensate or share its perceptions of reality as a function of emotional memory with the other senses. Levitin reaffirms this idea when he states, “Each time we hear a musical pattern that is new to our ears, our brains try to make an association through whatever visual, auditory and other sensory cues accompany it; we try to contextualize the new sounds, and eventually, we create these memory links between a particular set of notes and a particular place, tie, or set of events.” But as I had stated in my paper on our olfactory perceptions, if auditory cues and links to memories are not solely reserved to contributions of the ear to the brain, then how can any one aspect of sound or music perceived through our ears be considered more of a “psychological construction” than another aspect? Why is pitch less real than harmony? If both affect our affinity or preference for a song, is there a purpose in stating that one is actually somewhat fake?

      Lastly, I believe it is important to mention that Levtin’s discussion of sound and the way our brain translates it into music reminded me of our consideration of the role of predictability in the nervous system; we decided that the brain and the nervous system were not fundamentally comparable with computers because computers are much more predictable. If the inputs and outputs of our brain and nervous system were entirely predictable, we would have limited ability to adapt to changes or new experiences; the fact that our neurons reassemble often and unpredictably in response to a new experience is what makes us able to adapt, what makes life interesting and enjoyable, and what makes us essentially different from computers. While Levitin claims that our brains are “hardwired for music,” I assume that he is only making a simple analogy. Levitin himself claims, “Music is organized sound, but the organization has to involve some element of the unexpected or it is emotionally flat and robotic. Too much organization may technically still be music, but it would be music that no one wants to listen to.” According to Levitin, the music that we typically enjoy is that which is not too predictable or simple, but also not so unpredictable and complex that its general pattern is too much for the brain to process and engrain as a memory. The songs that we enjoy tend to exist at the middle ground; we need to be able to find a few landmarks to “invoke a cognitive schema” or basic familiarity, but we also need to have some initial element of surprise the first few times that we hear the song. Perhaps it is the unpredictable nature of our own nervous systems that has enabled us to and enjoy music as far back as human history can be traced; the somewhat unpredictable aspect of the songs we prefer seems to feed our need to continually adapt to new experiences, and it also seems to satisfy our desire to convert the unpredictable into the predictable, so that we can ultimately apply our learned experiences to promote further adaptations.

      In conclusion, I found that Levitin’s work forced me to modify my previous notions about neurobiology, music, and the brain on numerous levels. One major idea that I learned over the course of this semester and that Levitin reinforced is that less is often more. Sometimes of the scientific jargon (or musical jargon in the case of this book) does not help to illustrate or communicate an essential idea. Our consideration of topics in neurobiology this semester with limited consideration of the intricate molecular, cellular, and chemical functions of the brain and nervous system enabled me to grasp the larger concepts and to gain so many new insights into the brain and nervous system because I was not too caught up in the details. I can also confirm that my introduction to methods of considering and exploring the extraordinary features of the human brain in Neurobiology and Behavior served as solid foundation for my own personal reflections on observed neurological and behavioral phenomena, including those associated with the brain and music. This course has also greatly influenced my approach to many of the topics that were not directly addressed in class, and has led to me to come up with my own ideas for those topics or areas that we did not cover in class. For example, we discussed much of the neurobiological phenomena that occur in humans in nature, but what about those elicited by nurture? Does ethic background, religion, gender, or upbringing affect one’s neurological pathways or life experiences? Does it significantly affect the ways that we approach or perceive reality? Are the differences even noteworthy or substantial? Thus, while Levitin’s work has likely touched other readers in a significant way, it has also forced me to reconsider and to modify my previous notions about music, most notably in the context of my recent studies of behavior and the power of the brain in general in Neurobiology and Behavior. I have reflected on how this class has changed the way I perceive the brain, and where I could even begin to explain its extraordinary abilities to those who have not taken this class. Outside of this class, it seems that one brain is always compared to another, whether it is in the context of intellectual ability or even of common sense. However, in my opinion, it has been so much more worthwhile and so much more interesting to contemplate the abilities of an individual brain. One of the many ideas that I have taken with me from this course is that investigations and explorations of the many mysteries of the brain can only be conducted through use of our own brains, which are mysterious entities themselves. We may be in the I-function, or maybe we are not. Whatever the case, this course has taught me that my life and my realities may not necessarily be ultimately real. But this does not upset me at all. I am so thankful that I have the privilege to be the main character in a story, that is, my own personal story. That is what is real to me, but everything else deserves continuing thought, and such thoughts are bound to become part of my story.


Levitin, Daniel J. This is Your Brain on Music. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2006.