Books: This Is Your Brain On Music

This Is Your Brain On Music: Understanding A Human Obsession

This has been on my “to read” list for literally years, but I have to be a honest: I was a little disappointed. It is by no means a bad book: it is a very, very good book. The simple problem is that it was so heavily “talked up” for me – I have had people telling me I have to read this book, it’s amazing, etc. etc. Even on the cover, Classic FM Magazine claims I will “never hear music in the same way again”. Huh.

So… You will excuse me if I found the whole experience a bit of an anticlimactic let down. I fell like I should reiterate my previous disclaimer: This IS a good book. I just did not feel it was ground breaking.

OK, so, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s focus on the positives.

Levitin writes a wonderful, clear and comprehensive guide to musical structure and basic theory. And more: he goes into the science behind how we process sound, and what it is about musical structure, above mere noise, that makes us sit up and listen.

It’s obvious that Levitin knows his stuff: as a music producer turned neuropsychologist, you would hope so. Unlike some music/science researchers, he uses practical, real-world examples, and offers to let you listen along on his website. This definitely brings Levitin’s sometimes theory-heavy text to life: I worry that without these working examples, he would lose the interest of the impatient lay-person.

Interestingly, Levitin doesn’t focus solely on music 100% of the time. He draws parallels with other human-specific phenomena, particularly language and art – I found this especially reassuring, because it makes the overall concepts of the book more accessible to non-musicians.

Levitin also touches upon many interesting neurological and developmental cases – amnesia, Williams syndrome, Aspergers. But he only touches. Not enough to satisfy. I find the same frustration that I felt with Pinker’s “Language Instinct”.

But one thing that Levitin returns to, several times throughout the book? p. 127 “As reported by Oliver Sacks…”, p. 243 “as Oliver Sacks describes it…”, p. 260 “…in a movie narrated by Oliver Sacks…”. Strangely, Sacks finds the book “Endlessly stimulating”, which the publishers chose to emblazon on the back cover.

A good, comprehensive and engaging read. But I don’t feel I learnt anything brand-spanking new.

I have a strange urge to read Oliver Sacks next…


2 thoughts on “Books: This Is Your Brain On Music

  1. Pingback: 100! « Unravelled

  2. Pingback: Books: The 2010 Round-up « Unravelled

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