Saturday, March 31, 2012

Book Review: This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin

This reviewer is not a musician and does not sing (well), but like most Americans, does love music. Both science and music have been long-time fascinations, 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 is 267 pages, divided into nine chapters. It is written from a naturalistic point of view, but provides much material for the Christian apologist to ponder and address. The intent of this review is not to address the material, per se, but to inform the potential reader of the grand amount of material found in its pages.

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 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 Expect 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 easiest 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.

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. The main criticism would be that the book answered a lot of "what" and "why" questions from the evolutionary perspective, but Levitin did not answer any "how" questions- he did not provide much of a model for the evolutionary development of the auditory system or music. But...

From the perspective of a Christian apologist, this book is a "must-get". Many apologists like to use the argument from beauty for God's existence- specifically appealing to music. The content in this book can be used to build a teleological foundation for everything that makes music possible. This book demonstrates the extreme level of design required, before the concept of music could even exist for the argument from beauty to take form.

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. This reviewer cannot recommend This is Your Brain On Music highly enough.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Luke Nix is a Computer Systems Administrator in Oklahoma, USA. He has a beautiful and supportive wife, but no kids yet. In his spare time he enjoys studying theology, philosophy, biology, astronomy, psychology and apologetics. If you liked this review, more of his writing can be enjoyed at


_Nate said...

Not a musician but sounds very interesting, great review

MaryLou said...

I have to admit that, when I started to read this review, I thought, "Sounds interesting, but what does it have to do with apologetics?" Then you concluded by telling me and I thought, "Yes, I get it!"

It made me think of an article I read by William Lane Craig who encouraged budding apologists to build up their libraries with quality material. Then he said we were to make sure those libraries included information that wasn't specifically on the topic of apologetics, that there are many books on many topics that can be used apologetically. Obviously, this is one. Thanks for bringing it to our attention, Luke.

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