Daniel J. Levitin: This Is Your Brain on Music

I wanted to like this book — really I did.

This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin attempts to unlock the neuroscience behind music. What does the brain do to illicit such human attachment to music?

Levitin faces a difficult task with this book — how to explain the science in lay man’s terms while connecting it to our experiences with music. There’s no doubt Levitin, a former record producer turned doctorate, knows his material.

He explains how one of the pathways sound takes to our brain leads to the portion that controls motion and emotion. Music’s ability to move a person — literally — is rooted in the survival instinct to use sound as a warning.

He also goes into great detail about music theory and the physics behind music itself. In the first chapter, he advises musicians familiar with music theory to skip it. Don’t. Levitin talks about how the brain interprets such concepts as rhythm, pitch and timbre while explaining them as well.

The first half of the book is the most scientific. The third chapter, "Behind the Curtain", explains what the brain does when we listen to or play music. The last few chapters get more conceptual, relying more on experimentation on the mind than on the brain. (The author also explains the difference between the two.)

Levitin knows music, and he knows the brain. But he is not a writer.

Rather, he’s a competent writer, not an excellent one.

Excellent writer gets readers absorbed in the topic about which they’re writing. Levitin is good at explaining science, but he’s not good enough to turn those explanations into compelling reading. Too often, my mind would wander as I read This Is Your Brain on Music. Even after reading the book, I can’t really name what I took away from it.

One thing that stuck was how 10,000 hours of practice was required before people could become masters of a particular skill. Wolfgang Mozart may have been writing symphonies as a child, but his work as an adult gets the most recognition. Levitin mentioned this idea two years before Malcolm Gladwell wrote Outliers.

As for creating a deeper understanding about how my brain and my mind process music? This Is Your Brain on Music tries but does not succeed.

I’m willing to consider that science writing itself doesn’t lend itself to the narrative spinning possible in Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise, John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction or even Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I still have Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe sitting on the shelf unread, despite the fascinating adaptation on NOVA.

At the same time, I wish This Is Your Brain on Music could have delivered more than it did.