Sunday, April 13, 2014

This Is Your Brain on Music (2006)

As pop science books go, I think this one is pretty good. Author Daniel Levitin put in some time as a studio session player before going on to college to become a neuroscientist, which gives him something of a broader view than one normally expects, able to discuss Stevie Wonder, Beethoven, and rigorous scientific inquiry with equal facility. The results are fascinating and often illuminating. Among other things I found some support for my (slightly weird) contention that learning to sing note for note and vocal tic for vocal tic enable one to momentarily actually become that person, in a way (see posts about Buddy Holly, Prince, and Lou Reed). Music, it turns out, is not just universal and ancient among human beings but, biologically speaking, requires massively complex coordination across many different regions of the brain, which are all active all at once in the presence of music. Music becomes a kind of externalized essence of being fully alive. What's more, the unique patterns of brain activity produced in someone hearing a piece of music are virtually identical to the patterns of brain activity in the musicians playing it. This suggests a profoundly intimate connection among people that is caused by music, which certainly confirms much of my experience, particularly in live settings at shows. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of brains firing up simultaneously, in parallel, together. No wonder people get off on this stuff. Where a contrarian like me persists in seeing differences—I would like to register a minor complaint about Levitin's tastes, for example, which often seem to run to the predictable classic-rock / NPR sides of things—he much more convincingly makes the case for music as one of the most characteristically human of all activities, rivaling even language. And he flatters us by noting that very few people are anything less than expert music appreciators. As someone often flummoxed by the paucity of ability I have to sing or play instruments, but who insists on writing about music a good deal, I found that a particularly appealing point of view, incidentally helping me to explain a little better a part of myself that occasionally baffles me—this fierce clutching at music for meaning and identity. Also, he's very good on Joni Mitchell. Recommended for sure.

In case it's not at the library.

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