Singing On The Brain
by Michele Christopher

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

Daniel J. Levitin 0525949690.01._AA240_SCLZZZZZZZ_V52482733_.jpg

(Dutton, August 2006)

314 pages, hardcover


Book review by Andrew Careaga

So you wake up one morning, feeling pretty good about life, when before you rub the sleep out of your eyes the random playlist in your head cues up a song you haven't heard in ages. Worse, it's a song you don't even like, something like Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," or worse, Barry Manilow singing the chorus to "Copacabana." Over and over. You can't seem to shut it off, even as you struggle to sing something else in the shower.

Where do these insipid tunes come from? And how do they become so entrenched in our minds? Those are a couple of questions examined by Daniel J. Levitin, a former record producer and session musician-turned-neuroscientist. In his book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Levitin draws from advances in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and computer processing to tell the story of why music matters so much to our species.

For readers who (like me) struggled with science in high school, This Is Your Brain on Music can be a tough read. I had to revisit several sections in order to comprehend a some of the neurological activities Levitin describes. This is no fault of Levitin's, however, as his subject is much more complex than many of us would suspect. "At a neural level," he writes, "playing an instrument requires the orchestration of regions in our primitive, reptilian brain -- the cerebellum and the brain stem -- as well as higher cognitive systems such as the motor cortex (in the parietal lobe) and the planning regions of our frontal lobes, the most advanced region of the brain."

Even non-musicians' brains are busy processing the "organized sound" of music when they hear a tune, Levitin writes. Just the simple act of tapping your foot to your favorite song engages your brain in many complex processes. "We know that there are neural circuits specifically related to detecting and tracking musical meter, and we know that the cerebellum is involved in setting an internal clock or timer that can synchronize with events that are out-there-in-the-world," Levitin writes.

Thanks to the emerging field of evolutionary psychology and advances in neuroscience -- both aided greatly by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which captures images of brain activity in real time -- scientists now understand more about how the brain works than ever before. Levitin applies these advances in neuroscience and psychology to explain how the brain processes music.

For readers with a background in music and music theory, the first couple of chapters might come across as remedial. But stick with it, for here -- as Levitin explains the differences between a tone and a note, rhythm vs. tempo, timbre vs. loudness, etc. -- is where Levitin builds the foundation for the rest of the book. Even if you think you know a thing or two about music, you might learn something here. (For instance, I didn't know that timbre was pronounced tambre.)

As I mentioned earlier, the reading gets less penetrable as you go along. But Levitin handles the topics well, using analogies and a good dose of humor throughout. In one passage, Levitin explains why we have trouble appreciating the brain's complexity. It's "because the numbers are so huge they go well beyond our everyday experience (unless you are a cosmologist)."

The average brain consists of one hundred billion (100,000,000,000) neurons.Suppose each neuron was one dollar, and you stood on a street corner trying to give dollars away to people as they passed by, as fast as you could hand them out -- let's say one dollar per second. If you did this twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, without stopping, and if you had started on the day that Jesus was born, you would by the present day only have gone through about two-thirds of your money.
As for the humor, it is sprinkled lightly throughout, but Levitin's timing is appropriate. As he writes about the functions of the brain's four lobes, plus the cerebellum (the oldest, most primitive part of our gray matter), the subject gets bogged down in textbookish prose. Then he explains:
The surgical separation of a portion of the frontal lobe, the prefontal cortex, from the thalamus is called alobotomy. So when the Ramones sang "Now I guess I'll have to tell 'em/That I got no cerebellum" in their song "Teenage Lobotomy" ... they were not being anotomically accurate, but for the sake of artistic license, and for creating one of the great rhymes in rock music, it is hard to begrudge them that.
One thing readers should take away from Your Brain on Music is an appreciation of the brain as a marvelous music machine, more sophisticated than anything humans have come up with. Levitin's book might not make that song in your head go away, but it will give you insight into how music creates neural pathways in our brain. And maybe it'll make you think more about your choice of music.

Andrew Careaga is a music lover, PR flack and occasional-freelance writer who blogs regularly at bloggedy blog.


This sounds like it will be really cool if I can get through it. I know we all getsongs stuck in our heads, but I often wonder why so many of them are shitty songs that I'd never voluntarily glue in there.


This sounds really interesting, and a good idea for an x-mas present for my husband. Thanks Andrew!


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