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The Science of a Human Obsession

by Daniel J. Levitin

Pub Date: Aug. 3rd, 2006
ISBN: 0-525-94969-0
Publisher: Dutton

A neuroscientist with a rich musical background explains what is being learned through research about music and the mind.

Levitin, a former record producer, now director of the Levitin Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, sees music as a window into the essence of human nature. To bring the uninitiated up to speed, he devotes his opening chapters to answering the question of what music is, covering rhythm, meter, tempo, loudness and harmony, as well as providing basic information about the workings of the human brain. Levitin describes recent studies, some but not all at his own laboratory, that seek answers to questions about the brain mechanisms underlying emotion and memories associated with music. Noting that there is no single music center in the brain, he recounts how listening to music causes a number of brain regions, from the oldest and most primitive to the newest and as far apart as the frontal lobes and the cerebellum at the back of the brain, to be activated in a particular order. Levitin also considers the neurobehavioral basis of musical expertise; the origins of particular musical preferences; and the evolution of music. Taking issue with Steven Pinker’s assertion that music is but an evolutionary accident piggybacking on language, Levitin cogently presents arguments for music’s primacy in human history. Two appendixes provide additional information on the processing of music in the brain and on musical chords. The author displays an easy familiarity with a wide range of musical genres and the characteristics of numerous musical instruments and performers’ voices. He draws his explanatory examples from jazz, rock-’n’-roll, classical music, nursery and folk songs, and musical theater, to name but a few, tossing in references to the Beatles and Beethoven, Joni Mitchell and Bach, Frank Sinatra and Sousa.

Levitin makes the science of music readily understandable to the non-scientist and non-musician alike.