Sunday, January 07, 2007

This Is Your Brain on Music – Neurology of music

Music grows and is learned in cultures. ‘Music hath power to charm the savage beast,’ is how the saying goes, or, as Ed Sanders, counter-played upon the theme, ‘music hath power to alarm the civilized beast.’

Music also hath its language, its points and counterpoints. These matters are considered in This Is Your Brain on Music, a recent book by Daniel J. Levitin, that fleshes out a lot of concepts about music and how it works upon the brain. The books goes a bit further than just that, considering how the mind processes music. It touches upon a lot of recent research on the brain, and takes a scientific look at this essential art. It’s bias is on display in its full title: This Is Your Brain on Music:The Science of a Human Obsession.

I’ve looked at the CDs and vinyl and tapes that line my apartment, and I have seen it as something like an obsession .. but I think ‘obsession’ is a loaded term for a scientific tome. The author might have taken a bit more care in naming the book, as neuro matters are still only vaguely proved and so akin to pseudo science. But if you set out to popularize, you might as well not leave any ammo unused.

First. The background. You push the little valve down. The music goes round and round. It comes out here. And it enters your ear. And it dives into your neural matter like a white-suited Raquel Welch hell bent for havoc. You learn the meter, language, and tone of the music of your culture. All that is associated universally [within a group] is aligned with specific or obtuse human emotions. And the composer/writer plays with the human listeners perceptions, emotions, hopes and desire, and builds on what is expected, breaks it down, twists it, whatever, etcetera, sometimes deftly, sometimes imaginatively, sometimes to no effect (think: Pickwick records).

That’s Levitin’s premise; it is not ridiculous; and he reiterates it with examples that generally seem to buttress it; throughout the book. He picks out familiar examples from artists such as Beethoven and the Beatles. You know how She’s So Heavy has a strange ending? That’s an eample of howmusic plays with the expectations of the musically-trained mind. It ends in the middle of a note. I’ve never been able to anticipate it. Here There and Everywhere? It does not resolve on the note you think it would. But, I nfact the next nmber starts on that very note.

Most of the people I know grew up with rocknroll or pop music as the basic musical culture. Listening to music consciously was something one associated with the classical domain, jazz, or, after 1966, with guitar heros of rock by way of Ravi Shankar. You’d listen and it might go like this: You would visualize the notes that you were hearing; the different parts of the orchestra. And they would kind of proceed in marshaled fashion. Birds of music would swoop. Legions of music would charge. The birds would swoop in odd and pleasurable directions, or the legions charge would surprise and thrill, if the author was clever and artful in note, timber, key, and cadence. [Lovers of abstraction can cringe now.]

But the style of writing in This Is Your Brain on Music:The Science of a Human Obsession doesn’t quite meet the mark for me. If you read it, and you have interest in science the mind, and music, you will find many facts of interest. Cause Daniel J. Leviton as best he can pulls out all the stops.

Levitin is able, no doubt. He is a genuine scientist. Levitin ‘runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University,’ where he also holds the Bell Chair in the Psychology of Electronic Communications. Whew. He is also a session man. Yeah, he preens a bit, mentioning a little breathlessly he worked with the bass guy who is a judge on American Idol, and he went to dinner with Neuromancer Extraordinaire Francs Crick. But it’s not too bad.

He has made an effort to engage a non-specialist audience in what I will call the neurology of music, by tapping into shared musical experiences such as the Beatles, Beethoven, the Police, and, yes, the Carpenters.

Now the king of this stuff is Oliver “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” Sacks who nicedly conveys his impressions on the dust jacket of TIYBOM.’ Endlessly stimulating.” Says Oliver. Which is his way of saying I think there is a lot of stuff here.

But my feeling is that, chappie, much of what consists now of fair neurological conjecture may well be discarded within a decade. And this book, as it kicks the gong around, my just be a bit of clatter. There is not much mention here of the notion of feedback in music, but maybe someone else will address that notion, and Dr Levitin can take aim on that popeye’s efforts. Theyll be peace without end, everyneighbor a friend, and everone a blogg.er

This is your brain on music on Amazon

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