Summary of This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

Humans have had a fascination with music from the beginning of our existence and it has played an integral role in everything we have done. From the sound of a trumpet before battle to the sad hymns sung at a funeral, music has inspired feelings and emotions that sometimes goes unnoticed. 

In modern times, neuroscientists have taken this fascination to the next level. They have delved into the depths of our brains to figure out what music does to us. Why does it stir emotions and memories? Let’s find out.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • What is music and how it originated
  • How music affects the brain
  • Music, memories and emotion
  • Where musical expertise and preference come from

Key lesson one: What is music and how it originated

Everyone has their own idea as to what music is but how can we truly define it? The best way to define it would be to consider it as a combination of elements of sound to create a meaningful harmony. Seven elements of sound form music. These are pitch, rhythm, tempo, contour, timbre, loudness and reverberation. 

Pitch refers to what note is being played. 

Rhythm is defined as the duration of the sequence of notes.

Tempo refers to the speed of the musical piece.

Contour is used to describe the rise and fall of notes when a melody is played.

Timbre refers to the distinguishing sound that different instruments make when playing the same note.

Loudness is the amount of energy an instrument creates and Reverberation could refer to two things, how far away the sound is coming from or how big the room is that the sound is in. 

When these elements are combined in a meaningful way, that is when we get music. But where did it come from? Well, it depends on who you ask. Some say it came from humans mimicking the sounds of nature, others that it evolved alongside language and some people even believe that if music were eliminated from the world nothing would change. However, the majority of music theorists believe that music has a link to evolution in some way. Some cognitive psychologists even believe that music was the foundation for speech development. 

That’s not such a far-fetched theory considering that both speech and music share many similarities in how they are produced. Darwin himself also put forward this theory who believed that music was a precursor to speech and used it as a courtship technique. Much like the mating rituals of many animals, music in humans could have been seen as a sign of sexual vigour. After all, you need to be fit to be able to sing and dance well. Another indicator of being a good potential mate is that if you have time to sing and dance, that means your life is in order. You have enough food to eat and a place to shelter therefore you are successful and can provide for a mate. If this was the case, then music would have definitely been a contributor to human evolution.

Key lesson two: How music affects the brain

The brain is a mysterious organ but thanks to new brain imaging techniques, scientists are able to find the regions that are involved in processing music. The results have been enlightening, to say the least. Nearly all regions of the brain are involved in the processing of music. Furthermore, different areas of the brain manage the different sides of music. 

To travel as music through the brain means to first come into contact with the subcortical structures which are the oldest parts of the human brain. They are in charge of movements and emotions. Secondly, our auditory cortices are affected before our memory centre is triggered. After this, the elements of sound that were mentioned earlier come into play and cause a reaction in the areas of the brain that are linked with planning and self-control. 

However, these events do not happen one at a time, they occur simultaneously. The only order of events regards the brain’s specialized regions and networks identifying the low-level features of music before processing it completely. 

Key lesson three: Music, memories and emotion

Most of us know the feeling of being pulled into a memory when we hear a specific song. Memories can be particularly vivid as well when associated with music. They unlock memories we often forget otherwise and there is a reason for this. When you recognize a song or tune, many things happen simultaneously in your brain and it interacts with your memory. It is because of this interaction that your brain is able to remember a tune in the first place – it leaves an imprint of sorts in our brains. This has been further studied when scientists have observed the brain waves that people had while they listened to and imagined music. The activity during both actions was the same. This demonstrated that the neurons used during both processes were the same. It is known as the multiple-trace memory model and goes on further to explain how our brain stores both abstract and specific information regarding the song. This is why we sometimes have seemingly vague memories of events tied to songs. 

Along with memories, emotions are also therefore tied to music. We remember how we felt in that moment and it can stir up that same feeling. But more importantly, when we hear a song for the first time, there’s something else that stirs our emotion. The groove. Yes, that’s right – when people refer to ‘upbeat’ music that makes you happy, there is some truth to it. Groove is defined as the pulse or beat division of music and can be achieved by varying the beat in many ways. It is found to be most pleasing to us when it is not machine-like. Our brains have evolved to react to groove emotionally. It recognizes the pulse and expects it to occur in a certain way. When the groove changes, it contradicts our expectations and thus causes a reaction. The cerebellum is responsible for tracking the beat of the music and our emotional response. Interestingly enough, the cerebellum is also responsible for monitoring movement and timing. This was proven in a study that asked people to listen to music they liked and disliked. The cerebellum lit up and it did the same when they were asked to tap along to the beat. You may question why movement and emotion are both processed by the cerebellum but it’s not really a surprise. From an evolutionary view, it could be that emotions were linked to actions. Fear could trigger a response to run away. It could also be why we are so tempted to bop along to a pleasing tune. 

It is because of this reaction in our brain that composers are able to carefully manipulate our emotions by controlling whether our expectations are met or not. This is common practice in music composition and it is extremely important. Take the electric blues, for example. It’s common for the music to build up momentum and then suddenly stop to allow a guitar solo or the singer to take the lead. This simple manipulation of expectations makes us appreciate the music. Deceptive cadence is the term given to the practice of repeating a chord sequence several times for listeners to expect it before suddenly changing it. This actually makes listeners want to go back to the melody to repeat the chords again before the drop-off. It all seems very technical but if you really think about it, it’s exactly how we experience music. There’s a reason a song has a ‘hook’ and a reason why composers disrupt our expectations. It’s all to get our attention and let the music linger.

Key lesson four: Where musical expertise and preference come from

If music is such a universal concept, how come all of us are not musicians? Why are some people able to become classical pianists or opera singers? According to research into the matter, it’s simple practice. To be an expert in anything you need to practice for at least 10 000 hours and music is no exception. But as much as this has been proved by various studies, there are some genetic contributions as well. It is possible to be physically predisposed to be better at music. You could have larger hands which will aid in the way your fingers reach keys on a piano or a larger mouth which can increase your vocal range. Scientists have determined that it’s a fifty-fifty split between practice and genes that makes up our musical proficiency. 

So, that explains expertise, but what about musical preference? What determines the type of music we like? For the most part, it is what we are exposed to. This was proven when pregnant women were assigned a certain song to listen to. Once the babies were born, they preferred listening to the song their mother listened to whilst pregnant as opposed to any other. So, early exposure to music shapes our musical preference. As we get older, we apparently choose the music we like on our own but familiarity also plays a part. The familiarity of music means comfort and the association with other positive experiences. It’s also a sense of safety. When we listen to music we immerse ourselves in the tune, almost surrendering. The feelings of safety, comfort along with the other emotions music provides is what makes it such an integral part of our daily lives.

The key takeaway from This Is Your Brain on Music is:

Music has been a part of human lives for as long as we can remember. Some even argue that our musical ability developed before language and speech. It has even been theorised that it played a part in reproduction by proving one to be a good potential mate. If true, this makes music deeply rooted in our evolution. The way in which our brain perceives music involves all areas of the brain and is closely associated with memory, movement and emotion. Music may play a bigger role in our lives than we realize by being ably to trigger seemingly forgotten memories and improve our moods. 

How can I implement the lessons learned in This IsYour Brain On Music:

If you want to be a musician, you have to put in the hours. 10 000 hours to be exact. No matter what level you start at, continuous practice can make you an expert. If you rather just appreciate music, try exposing yourself to different types of music to see how your brain reacts. How does it make you feel? And what does it remind you of? You might be surprised at how much music could tell you!

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