Your Brain on Music


As I read “What is music?”, the third chapter of “This is your brain on music” by Daniel Levitin, I had a few recurring reactions.

The first was awe. All our ears receive are changes in air pressure, and yet our brains are able to organize this raw data in complex structures that allow us to tell the source of thousands of different –sometimes subtly different– sounds. I find this amazing. And even more amazing is the fact that we share these complex processing with other species. I especially enjoyed Levitin’s description of an experiment involving owls and the Blue Danube.

The second reaction was restlessness. I wanted to put down the book and go think of exercises to experiment with some elements of music that I haven’t explored much. To go write a musical piece focusing on reverberation and timbre –a certain path to cheap ambient music, coming to think of it–, or to go record voices and a couple of instruments, interchange their attacks and see (hear) what happens.

The third reaction was smiling. I enjoyed Levitin’s clever examples to explain elusive concepts like ‘pitch’ in words. An analogy that was useful to me was his comparison of the way instruments vibrate at different frequencies at the same time (part of his explanation of timbre) with the way the earth revolves around itself and also around the sun.

Finally, this chapter reminded me time and again of a documentary called “How Music Works”, by Howard Goodall. It can be found on YouTube. There is a chapter about harmony, one about rhythm, one about the bass, one about melody. They are very well structured –I don’t think I had ever seen these concept explained so clearly–. Of course, Goodall had the advantage of being able to use sound and animation to explain himself. And, in my case, he had the element of surprise: I caught this documentary on cable TV, so I my expectations were a lot lower than when I picked up Levitin’s book. “This is your brain…” has such interesting facts and colorful examples, and an original perspective. It was probably a conscious decision to keep it fresh, but it felt like it would have benefited from a couple more rounds of rewriting.

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