Unhappily, When This Talented Academician’s Dual Worlds of Art and Science Meet in His “Brain on Music” Book, the Bridge Often Seems to Be Out

I began reading neuro-musical polymath Daniel J. Levitin’s new book, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, with consideration anticipation. I mean, who can deny it . . . what an extraordinary phenomenon music is!

Some years ago, while living in a suburb of Denver, I remember being so affected by the unexpected radio rendition of a song that I could no longer drive. At least, not safely. I steered into a parking lot in emergency fashion and sat and listened, utterly transfixed by what I was hearing, somehow transported to some “high” place whose existence I’d had not the slightest inkling of moments before.

There are songs in my memory—yours, too, I’m quite sure—simply too painful to bear. (For me, the gospel hymns sung at my mother’s funeral, for example). Until the experience was considerably ruined by the ruthless sullying of the American ethos by the current Mayberry Machiavellis in Washington, my eyes teared at every halfway decent performance of the U.S. national anthem. Couldn’t help it.

So when Dan Levitin offers to explain how my brain makes music, I’m all ears. Surely, his background and talents are unique. Session musician, commercial recording and live sound engineer, record producer, Stanford B.A. in cognitive psychology, U. of Oregon Ph.D. in psychology, Booz-Allen Hamilton business consultant, founder of MoodLogic.com, the first internet music recommendation engine. And today, head of the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University.

When it comes to music, Dr. Levitin, how does the brain do it? And why? Levitan wastes not a moment in drawing on his remarkable background in cognitive neuroscience and his former career as a Rocker and recording industry fixture to explain it.

The sections of the book of most interest to me, a braaaaiiiinnnnn man, involve familiar territory. I never tire of hearing just how many neurons 100,000,000,000 neurons are. (Levitan illustrates by having you start passing out a dollar bill per second on the day Jesus is born; today, you’ll still have about $33,000,000,000 left.) Then you connect the neurons that go to the hip bone to those that go to the thigh bone and so forth, and you get so many connections that, says Levitin, “it is unlikely that we will ever understand all the possible connections in the brain, or what they mean.”

He explains how the brain takes the sounds of music and begins to analyze them, lightning-fast, from both top-down and bottom-up fashion, seeking a sense of perceptual completion. Perception, say great psychologists, is a process of inference and involves an analysis of probabilities. So with music, as with all other perceptual completion tasks, the brain is constantly at work creating illusions and using them for filling-in purposes. Composers realize this and use the phenomenon, Levitin explains, knowing, for example, that “our perception of a melodic line will continue, even if part of it is obscured by other instruments.”

He writes of other fascinating examples of the brain on music: “In piano works such as Sindig’s ‘The Rustle of Spring’ or Chopin’s Fantasy-Impromptu in C-sharp Minor, op. 66, the notes go by so quickly that an illusory melody emerges. Play the tune slowly and it disappears. Due to stream segregation, the melody ‘pops out’ when the notes are close enough together in time—the perceptual system holds the notes together—but the melody is lost when its notes are too far apart in time. As studied by Bernard Lortat-Jacob at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, the Quintina (literally ‘fifth one’) in Sardinian a capella vocal music also conveys an illusion: A fifth female voice emerges from the four male voices when the harmony and timbres are performed just right. (They believe the voice is that of the Virgin Mary coming to reward them if they are pious enough to sing it right.)”

But eventually my own perceptual completion abilities get worn down by Levitin’s habit of constantly jumping from one of his domains of interest to another. Does he know too much about too much? I don’t think this is quite the problem. I think rather that Dr. Levitin doesn’t have the ear for writing that he has for music. Or rather that the brain qualities that make him so musically gifted get in his way when he tries to explain them. Somewhere along about the 100th page, I began to long for Steven Pinker’s or Daniel Dennett’s or William H. Calvin’s or E.O. Wilson’s ability to weave complex technical ideas into seamless prose. On the final page, Levitin’s book doesn’t end. It just quits. I probably should have sooner.

Order the book here: This Is Your Brain on Music

More info here: Daniel J. Levitin

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