This Is Your Brain on Music Summary and Review

by Daniel Levitin

Has This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

Throughout history, music has been a central component of human culture. Whether a Homeric epic sung at a procession in ancient Rome, a shepherd’s single pipe echoing through the hills or a solemn hymn played at a funeral, music has always strongly engaged and moved us. The rise of modern neuroscience sheds new light on the phenomenon known as music and, while there’s still plenty to discover, it’s evident that music is an integral part of our brain. What is music and why can it make us feel good? How does it present itself in our brain? What is the relationship between music and memory? Why do people find musicians so attractive? These are a few of the questions addressed in this book summary.

In this summary of This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, you’ll find out:

  • what distinguishes music from just noise;
  • why makes tunes groovy; and
  • how hearing an old song can bring back so many recollections.

This Is Your Brain on Music Key Idea #1: What Music Is Made Up Of

So what is music exactly? Some people consider classical music the only “real” music, while others are adamant devotees of Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Is it possible to reach a general definition of music? Well, technically yes! We can define music as a meaningful sequence of specific building blocks. In contrast to random noise, music has fundamental elements that combine to create significant relationships with each other. The most important of those elements are pitch, rhythm, tempo, contour, timbre, loudness and reverberation. Pitch explains the question of “what note is that?” It’s the only part that changes during the first seven notes of the children’s song “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Rhythm is about the duration of a sequence of notes, and it’s the only variance in the first seven notes of The Beach Boys’ hit “Barbara Ann.” Every note is sung at the same pitch. The tempo is the overall speed of a piece, and contour refers to the general shape of a melody, or whether a note rises or falls. Timbre regards the tonal characteristics that distinguish one instrument from another when they are playing the same note. Loudness is the amount of energy an instrument is creating, and reverberation is how far away from us we perceive the sound to be, or how large the room is where the noise occurs. When we take all of these properties and combine them in a meaningful way, they create higher-order concepts, like melody, that form what we recognize as music. We actually tend to think of music in terms of melody, which means the succession of tones that we hear.

This Is Your Brain on Music Key Idea #2: The Evolutionary Basis of Music

Where does music originate? It’s a simple question, but it includes an extensive history of conflicting answers. For example, a small circle of scientists completely disregard the evolutionary roots of music. Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker asserted that, while there is a clear evolutionary purpose behind language, music is a mere by-product of communication that happens to cause pleasure. Other theorists agree, declaring that music serves purely hedonic purposes. They also argue that if music were suddenly eradicated, life would go on unaltered because it doesn’t serve an adaptive purpose. However, the majority of music theorists, the author included, believe that music does have an evolutionary beginning. Most cognitive psychologists researching music hold that its evolution fostered cognitive development. The idea that music paved the way for speech for our pre-human ancestors is rather compelling. Being that music and speech share many similar features, music could have been a means of honing the motor skills that vocal expression requires. In addition to possibly being a precursor to speech, music may have been an early means of courtship. Darwin made this argument approximately 150 years ago. To him, musicianship, like the peacock’s tail, is a sign of sexual fitness. To sing and dance adequately, you have to be mentally and physically fit. Musical proficiency and success also indicate stability to potential mates. If you have enough leisure to sing and dance, you probably have plenty of food and shelter available too. Because it seemingly signaled biological and sexual vigor, we have reason to believe that music did serve evolutionary purposes. Regardless, music is here and affects us on multiple levels. Next, let’s look at how it affects our brain.

This Is Your Brain on Music Key Idea #3: How We Process Music

Thanks to modern brain imaging techniques and neuropsychological advances, scientists can identify specific brain regions that are associated with processing music. What have we discovered, upon examining how the brain responds to music? Music processing occurs in almost every area of the brain, with different aspects of music managed by separate regions. Various musical characteristics, like pitch, tempo, timbre and so on, are analyzed and combined to build an understandable representation of what we are hearing. When listening to music, our the subcortical structures of our brain are the first responders. These structures are the oldest parts of the human mind; they manage matters such as emotions and the planning of movements. Next is the auditory cortices, placed on both sides of the brain. Then, as we try to follow along with music, our memory center is triggered, which includes other regions of the brain, like the hippocampus. This high-level processing then incorporates the fundamentals mentioned above, like pitch and tempo, to generate a unified representation. This transpires in the more advanced areas of the brain correlated with planning and self-control. While it may seem like a serial processor, this is all executed in parallel. The brain’s auditory system doesn’t need to wait to figure out a sound’s pitch to find out where it comes from. The brain circuits dedicated to these two separate procedures work to dig up answers at simultaneously. In summary, the brain begins by drawing out low-level features of the music using specialized regions and networks and melds them into integrated form and content.

This Is Your Brain on Music Key Idea #4: What Is An Appreciation of Music?

If you’ve been to a wedding and sat through the entire service, you may have noticed that many people only start tearing up when the music begins. But why is this? The emotions inspired by music come from our ability to anticipate what comes next in the music. By knowing our expectations, composers permeate the music with feeling by deliberately controlling whether or not these expectations will be met. It is an adept manipulation of the expected and the unexpected that makes “Here Comes the Bride” an emotional song, rather than a lifeless or robotic. Laying a foundation and manipulating expectations is at the core of music, and can be done in multiple styles. Take the electric blues for example. A standard move in this genre is breaking rhythmic expectations by building up momentum and then wholly ceasing to play, while the singer or lead guitarist continues. Another means of our expectations being controlled by composers is seen through melody. For instance, the classic deceptive cadence is when the composer repeats a chord sequence until the listeners are lead to expect another repetition. However, at the last minute, an unexpected chord is played that doesn’t entirely resolve. Composers play around with the inclination of the melody to “want” to return to its jumping-off point. You can hear this in “Over the Rainbow,” with the surprising leap from the first to the second note of the chorus – “some-WHERE.” This jump disrupts what we anticipate, but the composer compensates for it, next soothing us by bringing the original melody back. The trick is to not to overdo it, but to continue building tension; that is the art of composition.

This Is Your Brain on Music Key Idea #5: Songs And Memory

Do you know the feeling of re-listening to old music that sends you down memory lane? Suddenly, you’re immersed in the sensations and perceptions that were present the first time you heard the song. For many people, songs are attached to specific memories. But how can music unearth memories that were otherwise buried or even thought to be lost? Well, songs can function like keys to the mind: unlocking experiences we associate with a song. Neuropsychologically speaking, recognizing a tune requires several complex neural computations that interact with our memory. When listening to a song, it seems that the mind extracts an abstract generalization for later use. Interestingly, that is why we can recognize a song almost right away and accurately, even if it’s been transposed to a different key or the original tune is deformed. The song leaves an imprint in the brain that's triggered when the song is remembered. Studies that tracked brain waves while people listened to and imagined music revealed that the pattern of brain activity between those actions is indistinguishable. When we hear a piece of music, a distinct set of neurons fire in a particular way, and when we remember it, we recruit that same group of neurons to create a mental image of it. This is called the “multiple-trace memory model,” and it asserts that the traces left in our brains store the abstract and specific information contained within songs. It also explains why we can retrieve an early memory from childhood when hearing an old song.

This Is Your Brain on Music Key Idea #6: The Brain and Groove

Thump-thump-thump-thump: the pulse in music lets us know we’re moving forward and that we can anticipate some aspects at particular points in time of a song. When a pulse or beat division in a piece of music creates a strong momentum, it’s called the groove. Groove is a quality that can be produced by subdividing the beat in various ways, accenting some notes differently than others. But the best grooves incorporate a subtle feature of performance. People generally agree that groove functions best when it’s not machine-like, and instead has a drummer who speeds or slows the tempo in a subtle way that’s implicated by the emotional nuances of the music. That is what makes a rhythm track “breathe.” How does groove affect us? Our brains have evolved to react to it emotionally. Recognizing the pulse and expecting it to reoccur is an integral component of musical emotion. Music also communicates to us with remarkable effectiveness when it systematically breaks our expectations. The cerebellum, the section of the brain that monitors timing and coordination of physical movement, appears to be involved in tracking the beat of the music and our emotional response as well. It has been shown in studies where people were asked to listen to music they either liked or disliked. During the experiment, the cerebellum lit up, similarly to when people were asked to tap along with a beat. Why are emotion and movement connected and processed in the same area of the brain? It could be because, from an evolutionary viewpoint, feelings were a motivator for us to act. For example, the fear triggered by seeing a lion hopefully makes us run away. Therefore, the emotional system may be directly linked to the motor system, enabling us to react more quickly.

This Is Your Brain on Music Key Idea #7: What Musical Expertise Comes From

A large number of people take music lessons as kids, so why don’t more become concert pianists or a world-renowned rockstar? Let’s examine what makes people become musicians. Research shows that musical expertise is the result of practice. If you desire to become an expert, you should be prepared to practice for at least 10,000 hours total. Studies looking at conservatory students have revealed that the top tier is merely those who have practiced most. In one study, conservatory students were secretly split into two groups based on who the teachers deemed to be the most talented. Years later, those who obtained the highest performance ratings were those who had just practiced the most; the “talent” group to they were assigned to was irrelevant. Such studies indicate you don’t merely have to practice to become an expert. You’ve got to reach those 10,000 practice hours to even be in the company of the world’s best. That means twenty hours of practice every week for over ten years. It’s not all blood, sweat, and tears, though; your genetic makeup plays a part in musical expertise too. Just like being tall can make you a better basketball player, large hands are considered a blessing if you want to be able to reach keys that are far apart on a piano with as few hand movements as possible. Like any other skill, some people have a biological predisposition toward singing or an instrument. Yet, how much expertise can be marked up to genes? The best guess that scientists have right now is that genes and the environment each account for about 50 percent of how proficient we grow with a skill. Genes can dictate an inclination toward being very persistent or possessing excellent eye-hand coordination. But certain life events – from conscious experiences to the food your mother consumed while you were still in the womb – can influence if your potential will become a reality.

This Is Your Brain on Music Key Idea #8: Musical Preference and Familiarity

What is your earliest musical memory? Maybe, you can reminisce as far back as your toddler days. But it actually goes back further than that. In fact, you probably have an unconscious, prenatal memory of music. Research has determined that we prefer music that we were exposed to while still in our womb. In one study, pregnant women were assigned a song to listen to regularly. A year after the babies were born, the researchers played them both the attached song and another song, to see any preference was shown. Sure enough, they wanted to continue listening to the song they heard in the womb. This establishes that early exposure to music is so significant, it shapes our musical preferences later on in life. As we get older and start choosing our own music, familiarity appears to play a role in what we like. For us to warm up to a piece of music, it can’t be too simple, or complex. That has to do with predictability. If it’s too complicated, we won’t be able to predict it, making us feel alien, and if it’s too dull, it becomes overly predictable, and we’ll discard it as trivial. Familiarity also shapes our musical preferences because we enjoy sounds that can be associated with prior positive musical experiences. We’re pleased by sense of safety and comfort that familiar sensory experiences can bring. Interestingly, safety plays a role for many people when choosing music, since, in a way, we surrender and make ourselves vulnerable to music when listening to it. Just think: through speakers or headphones, bringing either comfort or sadness, we let these strangers into our homes, our minds, and our hearts.

This Is Your Brain on Music Key Idea #9: In Review

The key message in this book: Music triggers almost every section of the brain and is so deeply rooted in us that it may have assisted our pre-human ancestors in learning how to speak. Some of the extraordinary effects that music has on our brains include the ability to uncover hidden memories, soothe us and move us to tears. Actionable advice: Being a dabbler is beneficial! You don’t have to be a classically trained pianist or jazz trumpet aficionado to benefit from the effects of music. Simply tapping along to a song you love or humming your favorite melody has a positive impact on your brain, activating regions associated with learning and well-being. Suggested further reading: Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks Musicophilia examines the enriching, healing and disturbing effects of music. It delves into fascinating case studies regarding disorders expressed, provoked and alleviated by music.