Book Of The Week: This Is Your Brain On Music

If you’re a science buff and a fan of music, this blog’s for you. 

Daniel Levitin is a producer turned scientist. In his book “This Is Your Brain On Music,” he gives us an in-depth look at music and the mind. Specifically, he examines how music affects our mind and spirit. 

Music Is Organized Sound 

When we break sound down, we can see that it is made up of:

  1. Tempo
  2. Pitch 
  3. Rhythm
  4. Timbre
  5. Reverberation 
  6. Loudness 

When these components are interrelated, we get musical principles:

  1. Meter
  2. Key
  3. Melody
  4. Harmony

For those interested, there’s a detailed discussion on scales, notes, and frequency in the book. We’ll keep it pretty simple here. 

While timbre is the overall sound that different instruments make, rhythm and meter are what move music forward. They are like the engine driving almost all music.

How We Process Music 

Sounds enter our ears and pass by the basilar membrane, which sends electrical signals up to the auditory cortex. 

This is getting technical but stay with me. 

The auditory cortex has a map that contains different pitches. Daniel Levitin says that pitch is so important that the brain represents it directly. 

Imagine placing electrodes in the brain and being able to determine which pitches are being played to a person just by looking at the brain activity.

The cerebellum is the part of the brain involved with timing and body movement coordination. The cerebellum is the oldest part of the brain, and is also known as the reptilian brain. It is the cerebellum that is involved in tracking the beat in music. It is also activated when we are listening to music that we enjoy (or are familiar with). 

Just Emotions?

Since the cerebellum is activated when we are listening to music that we enjoy, it is theorized that this part of the brain is involved in emotion. There are connections from this portion of the brain to the amygdala and the frontal lobe. The amygdala is where we store emotional events, and the frontal lobe is involved in planning and impulse control.

In relation to music, we are moved emotionally (and physically) when the music has a predictable beat. The groove of the music also has to have a quality that moves the song forward and invites us to “a sonic world that we don’t want to leave.“

One example of a great groove that Daniel mentioned in the book is “Superstition“ by Stevie Wonder. He says that the organization of music should involve some element of the unexpected, or it would be emotionally flat.

Knowing what to expect and then listening to music that systematically violates those expectations is how music communicates to us emotionally.

I’ve always been interested in music and psychology, and this book has taken that interest up a notch. The more questions that Daniel Levitin answered, the more questions I had. But I guess that’s the nature of science. 

Drop a comment below and let me know what you think!

*As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases of books through this site. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: