Book Review: “This is Your Brain on Music” by Daniel Levitin

I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the way in which music is somehow different.  This is not something I’m claiming to be a unique trait that only I have, because I think we all, in our own ways, set our love of music apart from everything else in our lives.  We don’t always try to define why it’s different, but we know it isJeremy Yudkin points out one difference worth mentioning when he notes that (and I paraphrase) music is the only art form that can be passively enjoyed…we don’t need to actively pay attention to feel its effects.

But passivity can’t be all there is to it.  Somehow, each of us has a deep, personal relationship with some form of music or another.  You don’t need to be a performer like a concert pianist, or a taiko drummer to be emotionally moved by music.  Thanks to the relatively new field of neuroscience, it seems (for the moment, at least) that the only noteworthy prerequisite to enjoying music is to be a human.  Remarkably, even not having the ability to hear doesn’t stop someone from enjoying the rhythms and vibrations that music can cause in our bodies.

Bringing to bear the weapons of cognitive psychology and neuroscience (not to mention music theory), Daniel Levitin, in “This is your Brain on Music” explores a wide range of topics that try to figure out why we all love music as much as we do.

On the surface, there are many who may cringe at trying to explain the beauty of an art with something as cold and calculating as science.  But nothing could be further from the truth, as the book well accounts for differences in music depending on the culture, geography, history and age of the listeners.  This is not a neurology textbook aimed at explaining why our brain releases chemicals that trick us into loving certain sounds which we arbitrarily call music.  This book is in the truest tradition of science popularization, aimed at explaining our love of music through one filter that we have not had at our disposal in the past.  Levitin does not strip the beauty from the art, he adds to it.

I found the first few chapters, the sections dealing with the physics of sound, to be especially fascinating.  I majored in Recorded Music Production in college, so a lot of this was familiar to me, but it was nice to get a refresher to the ways in which sounds, music, and our ears work in harmony.  This section is also particularly useful for a skeptic because it serves as a bit of a reminder that our ears can be fooled, just as our eyes can.

There is a concept in music theory known as the “implied chord”.  If you play the 1st and the 5th note of a scale at the same time, our ears will automatically “insert” the missing middle note, usually a perfect 3rd.  In music terms, if you play a C and a G together, we can functionally hear the missing E, allowing us to hear a C Major chord.  If you have a keyboard nearby, try it out.  Any guitarist that has played a “power chord” has done this, because power chords only play the 1st and the 5th.  But power chords, because they lack the missing third, can be made to sound like either a major or a minor chord.

If you know how to play piano or guitar, try this little experiment that I do with my students, and play with your expectations of music

First, play the following chord progression:

  • C major (but leave out the E)
  • F major (play as normal)
  • G major (play as normal)
  • C major (but leave out the E)

If you played it correctly, your C major will have sounded just like a regular C chord, even though you didn’t play the requisite E (or 3rd), which makes it a major chord.  Now play the same thing and instead of inserting an E, insert an Eb.  My apologies for the horrible sound that ensues.

Now, play this progression:

  • Eb Major (play as normal)
  • Bb Major (play as normal)
  • C Major (but leave out the E)
  • Ab Major (play as normal)

If you did this correctly, your “C Major” will have sounded like a C Minor.  This is because our ears and brains will automatically adjust to whatever key (or set of tones that mathematically align well with each other) we’re playing in.  If you want to mess with that expectation, make sure you add in the vacant “E”, and see how lovely it sounds.  Hint:  it doesn’t.  Our ears are really good at deciphering complicated melodies, harmonies and rhythms, but a skilled songwriter / composer can play with those expectations and trick you into hearing something you weren’t expecting.  From Bach and Mozart to Paul McCartney and Rush, our musical laws are not absolute, and we love to be fooled.

We love music that has consonance and dislike music with dissonance.  But how do we define these words at all, when on the surface they are so subjective?  Well, Levitin is careful to point out that what is considered consonant and dissonant has changed over historical time.  During the middle ages, the only intervals (number of notes in between notes) that were commonplace (and allowable) were the perfect fourth, perfect fifth and the octave (as an example, C-F-G-C).  Music in later times expanded to include all notes in the diatonic scale (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do), as well as some “flat” and “sharp” notes in between (generally speaking, the black keys on a piano).  The “augmented fourth” (C-F#) was outlawed by church officials as being the devil’s interval, and no music was allowed to write such an obviously demonic progression.  Leonard Bernstein  did not get the memo when he wrote the opening two notes to the chorus of “Maria” in West Side Story.

If you’re a musician, you will definitely feel like a special person as you read this book.  Levitin takes many moments to point out the ways in which a trained and/or experienced musician hears sounds, chords, notes, or rhythms differently compared to our non-musical friends.   Any experienced musician can learn a song “by ear” many times easier than a novice who knows the same exact same chords.  If you listen as a musician does enough times, your brain gets pretty good at predicting patterns and anticipating what will come next. It’s not just music, notes, and instruments, but also the specific types of instruments.  I don’t mean just the sound a piano makes vs. a guitar here.  Blindfolded, I could tell you if you’re playing my fender Stratocaster, my Takamine, or Epiphone, or my fender resonator.  This is not a special skill that I have compared to other musicians, most musicians can do this. But it is a special skill that I have compared to most non-musicians.  Most people are skilled enough to distinguish an acoustic guitar from an electric one, but when asked to compare the sound of a “Stratocaster” to a “Telecaster”, the difference will likely be too nuanced for the non-experienced to distinguish.

Astronomer Neil Degrasse Tyson noted “if you’re scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you”.  I maintain that if you’re musically literate, the world sounds different to you.

He also mentioned a rather peculiar point about musicians themselves:  All throughout human history, everybody was musical.  If you could talk, you could sing.  If you could walk, you could dance, and he noted that in some of today’s tribal cultures, the tone of singing and rhythm of dancing are ubiquitous factors of everyday life.  The notion of having a select (or elite) class of  people who are uniquely able to play music, has only really been around for about 500 years or so.

However, he also points out that nobody is truly non-musical, as everyone can enjoy a CD, hum happy birthday (if out of key), and tap their feet (if off beat).  We’re a musical species by evolution, and it is this point where Levitin proposes perhaps his most provocative ideas.
Levitin proposes something that I’ve wondered myself (once I understood how evolution really worked):  Is musical ability a selected-for trait?  I’ve suspected that if you can perform an artistic display of music, that might entice a potential mate.  Every lead singer is familiar with this phenomenon, regardless of physical characteristics (insert obligatory “Mick Jagger is ugly but has more women then I have hair” joke here).  This was about as far as I got with the idea, but Levitin went further, suggesting that by showing a potential mate that you are talented in music and dance, you demonstrating that you had resources to waste on something so frivolous.  In other words, it was a display of wealth and security more than it was of ability and talent.

Not everyone agrees.  Steven Novella described music as an epiphenomenon of our cognitive abilities.  In other words, we didn’t evolve to play music, we evolved a large number of other traits that we happen to be able to make music with.  Another challenge to the selected-for claim of music was a notion  primarily forwarded by Steven Pinker, who called music “auditory cheesecake.”

When humans were roaming hunter-gatherers, we needed fat and sugar, neither of which were in plentiful supply.  When our ancestors got a jolt of these fats and sugars, the pleasure centers in fired off in their brains, knowing that their nutritional demands have been met.  Nowadays, we have cheesecake, which is made of almost exclusively fats and sugars, so our bodies don’t understand that we don’t need a heaping plate full of calories to stave off death for a week.  And we engorge.  Partially because cheesecake is delicious, partially because the things that we find delicious that are in cheesecake. According to Pinker, art is much the same,   “a biologically pointless challenge: figuring out how to get at the pleasure circuits of the brain and deliver little jolts of enjoyment without the inconvenience of wringing bona fide fitness increments from the harsh world”  (Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 524)… music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties”  (p. 534)

It seems that as far as evolution and music is concerned, there is still widespread disagreement, and it’s not likely to be conclusively settled soon.  For me, it’s hard to imagine that some people are not ‘hardwired’ for music a little better than others.  I say this not as an appeal to personal incredulity, as I’m not arguing the case.  For my own (admittedly anecdotal) experience, music has never been hard for me.  I can pick up just about any instrument that I’ve never seen heard before, and be playing something musical inside of 10 minutes.  I’ve never had to work at music, even when I was a kid.  This is not to say that I didn’t practice, but music was never difficult for me (which might be why I’m lousy at playing classical piano:  it takes a LOT of work to get good at a Liszt piece).  I teach many students, and some students seem to have a natural gift for it.

Sadly, I can’t point out the common threads.  I don’t come from a particularly musical household (though my papa did play organ when I was a wee lad), yet I am very musical.  Some of my students come from musical households, and they have tremendous difficulty with even basic concepts.  The possible cultural explanations are manifold (income, parental influence, peer pressure, access), but I frown that there are so many respected scientists who are quick to throw away a possible evolutionary explanation to music.

This post was a bit long winded, but forgive me:  I don’t get to write about music often.   Music is my first love, my closest thing I have to an expertise, and the intersections of skepticism and music are not exactly in plentiful supply.   I’ll write about it when I can, but this book was a special treat to me.  Sometime in November/December, I’ll be reviewing Levitin’s followup book, The World in Six Songs, because this field of study is so new and groundbreaking, it’s exciting to see a new scientific discipline as it emerges.  We’re privilaged enough to live at a time where we can expose ourselves to such information, and Levitin’s gift for prose and humor makes this otherwise complicated subject take on a decidedly human tone.


Daniel Levitin was recently a guest on Skeptically Speaking!  He’s a funny guy who kept throwing Desiree into giggle fits, which she is wonderfully inept at hiding.  Radio shows are always best when Desiree giggles too much.  Once, during a pre-recorded session for this episode, I made her giggle so bad we had to stop and do another take.  Go take a listen!  It’s also informative.  The giggles are just bonus.

5 Responses to “Book Review: “This is Your Brain on Music” by Daniel Levitin”

  1. Amanda says:

    Really interesting review, Steve. I’m definitely driven to believe that some people are more “hardwired” than others as well. I’m minorly musical- I can tell when something’s off key (it drives me up the wall) and I can find the beat in most music, even if I can’t tell you what the time signature is for anything beyond the most common ones. I had music lessons for years but can’t play anything by ear, at least not without an excruciating amount of trial and error.

    My partner, however, can pick up any instrument and have any song he’s ever heard figured out in no time. It’s disgusting and awesome, especially since we’re both trying to learn how to play guitar. I have better technique (hooray for flexible hands) but he was playing simple songs within an hour of picking up a guitar for the first time.

    The muscle memory aspect of making music is something I’ve always enjoyed. That could be seen as an evolutionary advantage- being able to show your ability to do complex physical tasks. Nature’s full of seemingly otherwise useless ways to show off to a potential mate, which are actually complex ways of displaying genetic fitness. Just a wild conjecture, but it’s interesting to think about.

    • Steve Thoms says:

      Thanks Amanda. The muscle memory aspect that you mention is one of the central things I try to teach beginners.

      When learning the guitar, the hardest thing a student will ever have to do (in proportion to their talents at a given moment) is learning how to switch chords quickly and accurately. Yes, sweep arpeggios are far harder to do, but if you can get to the point where you need to learn sweep arpeggios, you know enough already to bring enough talents to bear to that excruciating technique.

      But I always tell beginners that the fastest way (though it is by no means objectively fast) to learn to switch chords quickly is to play the chords, even difficult chords, without looking at them. Look anywhere else you like, but by keeping your eyes off of your hands, you’ll train your fingers to do the work that your eyes are currently doing.

      It’s gotten so ‘bad’ with me, that when I think about what to play next in Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven, I forget how to play it. But when I just let my fingers do the work, I get through it without difficulty. Neat stuff, music.

  2. John Greg says:

    “It’s gotten so ‘bad’ with me, that when I think about what to play next in Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven, I forget how to play it. But when I just let my fingers do the work, I get through it without difficulty.”

    That’s an interesting point. After playing professionally for some 15 years my repertoire of songs ran into the high hundreds, perhaps even low thousands. But if I ever made the “mistake” of really thinking about any one of those songs while playing it I would, in almost all instances, forget where I was and where I was meant to go next. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.

    Excellent and interesting review by the way. I am definitely going to pick this book up now.

    You comment that you feel that “each of us has a deep, personal relationship with some form of music or another,” and the author says no one is totally non-musical. Well, I’ve known quite a few people who actually do not really have any kind of relationship with music at all, and who really are totally non-musical. They quite clearly do not listen to it, cannot recognize one tune from the next, and so on. Admittedly it’s a pretty smallish group, but they do exist.

    From my experience, both professionally and interpersonally, the small group of folks who have no sense of time or rhythm and/or no ear, i.e., cannot distinguish any kind of change in pitch, key, and so on, are also the people most likely to have no relationship with music.

    “… our brain releases chemicals that trick us into loving certain sounds which we arbitrarily call music.” LOL! I love that line. Excellent.

    Oh, and speaking of implied chords, Andy Summers, when he was with the Police, was a master, a true master of implied chords. If you can handle it, pick up the first couple of Police albums and listen really closely to Summers’s work. It is fascinating. A great example is Roxanne. Now, most guitar players I know when covering that tune tend to only play at most about 5 or 6 chords, but if you listen really closely you can tell that Summers’ is in fact playing several more than that, perhaps as many as 15 different chords throughout the tune … or, are they just implied by the surrounding sonic environment? Fascinating, stuff.

    “If you’re a musician, you will definitely feel like a special person as you read this book.” Yay! I could do with a bit of that.

    “I maintain that if you’re musically literate, the world sounds different to you.” Absolutely; absofuckinglutely.

    “I can pick up just about any instrument that I’ve never seen heard before, and be playing something musical inside of 10 minutes.” Have you ever tried the clarinet? Yikes. ;)

    Thanks again. A really excelent review.

  3. I would add that architecture is an art form that is often passively appreciated. The shape and space of a room will make us feel and even behave in a certain way, whether or not we are conscious of it.

  4. Dianne Sousa says:

    Okay I have to add my two cents. In reference to muscle memory, I play piano at home for recreation and I noticed that after I mounted some art on the wall above my piano I’ve tended let my eyes drift upwards and focus on it as I play. My sense is that I’m hearing how I am playing better and adjusting my technique accordingly, nearly automatically.

    My first (and somewhat ridiculous) first love is crochet and if there is ever any way that I can some join skepticism and that together, my life would just be more awesome. Maybe someday…

    Great review and I’ll put this book on my list. Thanks so much.


  • Steve Thoms

    Steve is a professional music teacher living in Kitchener, Ontario. He studied recorded music production at Fanshawe College, and Political Studies/History at Trent University, where he specialized in political economy and global politics. He is an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. Steve also runs the blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic." can can be followed on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic.