Book Review: This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science Of A Human Obsession

This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science Of A Human Obsession, Daniel Levitin, 2007, New York: Plume Books (Penguin). ISBN 978-0-452-28852-2, $15.00.

For audiophiles, the importance of the listening context is never doubted. We recognize that components sound different in various spaces and, after some time in the hobby, the importance of room acoustics to the complete audio reproductive system (music, components, environment and listener) is accepted. What is less recognized is the importance of what lies within us as listeners, our cognitive architecture, and the role it plays in our enjoyment of sounds. Once you accept that experience can teach you to discriminate reliably between components, rather like an expert in other domains of perceptual experience can learn to distinguish styles and tastes (food and wine palates, for example) you are in a position to benefit from an investment in the single most important component in appreciating music, yourself.

To this end, I encourage you to invest a few dollars and a dozen hours of effort in digesting this book. Levitin has a great pedigree for this, from music industry insider to academic lab director studying the cognitive neuroscience of human response to music. He takes you through the basics of musical structure to the role of music in human evolution, cutting through the arcane terminology of scales, tones, pitch and harmony, dropping in stories of dinner with Neil Young, sessions recording drums, and conversations with Joni Mitchell on the interpretive strengths of Jaco Pastorious, and in so doing provides an endless series of insights in how and why particular sounds seem to really matter to humans.

While gear plays a limited role in this book, it is truly ear-opening to learn that most people possess excellent understandings of pitch (the real trick of those with perfect pitch is not that they hear better than us but that they have the ability to attribute the right label to the pitch, and Levitin is quick to tell you that the labels, A, B#, Cflat, etc., are arbitrary). Similarly, humans have innate abilities to decode rhythm, to anticipate pitch sequences and relations, all of which reflect the underlying neurological workings of our brains, independent of culture. Throughout, the author references specific experiments to back up his points, such as the time it takes people to recognize a familiar tune (split seconds), the number of hours of practice it takes to become an expert musician (ten thousand hours), the centrality of attack to the identification of instrumental sounds (it’s this which makes a piano distinguishable from say a guitar), and that scanning technologies reveals brain states of serious listeners actually appear to match in part those of the performers during a piece. It is reassuring to audiophiles that his research shows timbre to be perhaps the most important driver of a sounds quality to our ears.

Tellingly, Levitin argues convincingly that repeated, attentive listening to music can increase our resonance with the emotional intent of the composer or player, and ultimately shape the neurological combinations in the brain. Is it any wonder that audiophiles crave the connection that great reproduction of the musical signal can provide? Those of us seriously committed to this hobby have intuited this for years but it is powerful to have new scientific research provide compelling support for our more experiential views. The brain is a magnificently complex system and its response to music is not localized in only one area but invokes multiple sub-systems and processes when we connect with these sounds. Is it any surprise that resolution, realism, and fidelity can produce such joy when we understand more of how all of us are gifted with this wonder of design within our heads? If your obsession is tubes or vinyl for their own sake then perhaps there is no hope for you, you are a fetishist, but if you love music and find the right audio equipment can enhance your appreciation and love of music, then you have no reason to apologize, you are developing your own awareness of something quintessentially human and sharing in a pleasure that has enticed mankind throughout the ages.

The book title and marketing suggest this work is aimed at a popular audience but full credit to the author, the text is no pop-psychology manual. Indeed, even if you are familiar with scientific writing, you might find this work demands concentration. Chapters are lengthy and references to important findings and models need to be followed to grasp the details Levitin seeks to convey. The author clearly was annoyed at the comments by Steven Pinker, author of several similarly-marketed cognitive science works on language, that music was no more than the ‘auditory cheesecake’ in evolutionary terms since the final chapters spend so much time disputing this argument in favor of a more essentialist view of music as fundamental to human experience. This provides the reader with the context, a view of current debates within cognitive science, and in my view adds value to this book by presenting the science, disagreements and all.

Daniel Levitin

Next time you have to justify your ‘obsession’ to others, this book will equip you with the data and theories to slay the cynics who think all audiophiles dupes or fanatics worshipping at the altar of cult engineering and buying (dearly) into fads and magic pebbles. Levitin has established a beachhead for the serious study of music listening in all our lives, and audiophiles can both learn from and be grateful for this text. Strongly recommended.