Archive for February 4th, 2008

A must-read on the science of a human obsession

February 4, 2008

I finished reading Daniel J Levitin’s This is your brain on music — The science of a human obsession. Oliver Sacks apparently found it “Endlessly stimulating” (as the book cover helpfully notes). It is that and much more.

Somewhere in the first few pages, Levitin mentions that

Americans spend more money on music than on sex or prescription drugs.

Fittingly, the last chapter mentions the psychedelic pleasures of rhythmic music, and how music can lead to a better sexual life (And, you thought doing scientific research attracts women!):

Robert Plant, the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, recalls his experience with their big concert tours in the seventies:

“I was on my way to love. Always. Whatever road I took, the car was heading for one of the greatest sexual encounters I’ve ever had.”

and, how, the combination of language and music as in a love song is the best courtship display of all.

The last conclusion, however, might not be surprising to those of us who have grown up watching Tamil, Telugu and Hindi movies where love songs play(ed) such an important role in courtship, as well as the influence of those songs on the streets — how many school annual day functions have we seen in which X sings a song which, as his friends and his love interest knows, is actually the equivalent of Tom Sawyer’s antics on the wall to get the attention of Becky Thatcher.

In between such trivia about the reach of music industry and deep evolutionary explanations of the significance of music, Levitin packs a huge amount of information about music: be it the physics of sound, the anatomy, physiology, and the neuroscience of the perception of sound, or a detailed scientific analysis of music and its parts, like pitch, timbre etc. The first few chapters which discuss many of these details make this book a good reference to keep returning to.

Levitin is also a very perceptive writer; he not only explains why we like the music the we like, but also explains what makes us hero-worship the musicians we like — why, if somebody says something bad about our favourite musician, it upsets us so much — and why we tend not to listen to those musicians whose personalities we don’t like:

Safety plays a role for a lot of us choosing music. To a certain extent, we surrender to music when we listen to it–we allow ourselves to trust the composers and musicians with a part of our hearts and our spirits; we let the music take us somewhere outside of ourselves. (…) We might be understandably reluctant, then to let down out guard, to drop our emotional defenses, just for anyone. We will do so if the musicians and composer make us feel safe. (…) This is part of the reason why so many people can’t listen to Wagner. Due to his pernicious anti-Semitism, the sheer vulgarity of the mind (as Oliver Sacks describes it), and his music’s association with the Nazi regime, some people don’t feel safe listening to his music. Wagner has always disturbed me profoundly, and not just his music, but also the idea of listening to it.

Finally, at some level, Levitin’s book is also elevating — not just because it discusses music, but because it makes the connection of musical training to other types of activities and training, and shows how, in every sphere of human activity, the achievement of true mastery requires so much of hard work:

The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert–in anything. In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again. Ten thousand hours in equivalent to roughly three hours a day, or twenty hours a week, of practice over ten years. (…) It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery.

The only problem I had with the book is that there is no index or listing of all the albums and songs that Levitin mentions in his book; however, I found that the book website maintained by Levitin has precisely that — the music samples with brief notes.

Bottomline: A book that I thoroughly enjoyed, and would like to return to often. Strongly recommended. Have fun!

Other online resources:

[1] I picked up Levitin on the recommendation of Jayan at Brain Drain, who has a nice review of his own for the book;

[2] Fred Bortz’s review of Levitin;

[3] Profile of Levitin and his book at NYTimes and Salon; and,

[4] Levitin discusses music with a singer/songwriter, David Byrne at Seed.