Books: This Is Your Brain on Music

Some weeks ago, I read about BookBub and signed up. I don’t care for reading eBooks, but I thought I might see some deals that would change my mind. So far I haven’t found any that persuaded me to read them on an electronic device (either borrowing my husband’s tablet or reading on the computer monitor). But the lists of books available has made me aware of books I hadn’t heard of, that I then decided to read the old-fashioned way.

This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin explores how the brain processes music. It’s more about the brain than it is about music, but it attempts to find answers to questions many of us would not have even thought to ask. How do we tell the difference between one instrument and another playing the same note? What makes your foot tap when listening to music? Why do some kinds of music make us happy while others evoke a feeling of sadness?

One I found particularly interesting is, how is it that we can recognize a tune no matter what key it is played in, by what instruments, or how fast or slow it is? It’s easy for us to do, but how do our brains do it? It’s not something that computers know how to do. These days you can get an app that can easily identify a song from hearing a short sample, but it is identifying that particular performance of the song, not the tune itself.

It’s not as easy for us to recognize a familiar song when played in a very different style. For a while, two of my favorite albums were Heigh-Ho Mozart and Bibbidi Bobbidi Bach. In case you’ve never heard them, these take familiar Disney tunes (and if you have kids and a VCR or DVD player, those tunes quickly become very familiar) and arrange them in the style of a well-known composer, mostly but not all classical composers.

Some I could recognize fairly quickly, while others were much harder. What surprised us was how quickly our son (then a preschooler) could recognize them. Whether because he watched these Disney movies so much, because of his innate musical ability (he is now a music teacher), or because his still-developing brain had greater flexibility than ours, he amazed us with his rapid recognition of the underlying tunes.

This section of the book was my favorite, dealing with how the brain remembers things. One theory regarding memory is that our brain is like a digital video camera, storing our experiences for later recall (though our recall is often ineffective, even if the data was stored accurately to begin with). The competing theory is that we ignore the irrelevant details but preserve the important aspects, including relations between different objects and ideas.

Both theories have strengths and weaknesses, but recent research (where music memory experiments have helped provide clues to how memory works) has shown that “multiple-trace memory models” seem to come the closest to explaining things. Unfortunately, Levitin spends very little time on explaining these models.

My one disappointment with the book is that Levitin uses many examples to make whatever point he is discussing, the vast majority are to musicians and songs that I know nothing about. Relatively few are to classical music, which has always been my preference. (He does have a chapter on what causes musical preferences, but I still can’t see what makes people enjoy ear-pounding rock music that makes me want to run for the nearest exit.)

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