Monday, September 24, 2007

Book: This is your brain on music by Daniel Levitin

This book is about the science of music, from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience - the field that is at the intersection of psychology and neurology. Levitin discusses some of his own and the latest studies researchers in our field have conducted on music, musical meaning, and musical pleasure. They offer new insights into profound questions. If all of us hear music differently, how can we account for pieces that seem to move so many people - Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, or Don McLean's "Vincent (Starry Starry Night (Vincent)" for example? On the other hand, if we all hear music in the same way, how can we account for wide differences in musical preference - why is it that one man's Mozart is another man's Madonna?

The mind has been opened up in the last few years by the exploding field of neuroscience and the new approaches in psychology due to new brain imaging technologies, drugs able to manipulate neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, and plain old scientific pursuit. Less well known are the extraordinary advances we have been able to make in modeling how our neurons network thanks to the continuing revolution in computer technology. We are coming to understand computational systems in our head like never before. Language now seems to be substantially hardwired into our brains. Even consciousness itself is no longer hopelessly shrouded in a mystical fog, but is rather something that emerges from observable physical systems. But no-one until now has taken all this new work together and used it to elucidate what is for me the most beautiful human obsession. Your brain on music is a way to understand the deepest mysteries of human nature.

By better understanding what music is and where it comes from, we may be able to better understand our motives, fears, desires, memories, and even communication in the broadest sense. Is music listening more like eating when you're hungry and thus satisfying an urge? Or is it more like seeing a beautiful sunset or getting a backrub, and thus triggering sensory pleasure systems in the brain? Why do people seem to get stuck in their musical tastes as they grow older and cease experimenting with new music? This is the story of how brains and music co-evolved ­ - what music can teach us about the brain, what the brain can teach us about music, and what both can teach us about ourselves.

Your Brain On Music Website