This is your brain on music

Disclaimer: long article ahead. Brace yourselves!

To be honest, I’m quite surprised that this book is a bestseller. Not because I didn’t like it, since it would be unlikely that I would spend time on writing an article about it if that were the case. While I do regret that negative data is often not published in scientific journals, I do understand the reticence about spending time to write about something that didn’t work out – even if that would probably prevent other people to spend their time doing the exact same non-working thing because they didn’t know it had already been done and didn’t work.


While I really enjoyed reading the book, I’m surprised it is a bestseller because I found it quite hard to read. For someone like me, a huge music lover and avid scientist, the difficult part was my total absence of training in music theory. I cannot read the solfege really well, and I never learned to play an instrument. So while the scientific part was easy for me to understand and I found it fascinating, the music theory part was a lot to ingest and I found a new respect for musicians and especially composers. Not that I ever thought that being a composer was easy, but there is a preconception about music school students that they do not really work much; and I found that the music theory concepts are pretty heavy to handle, and require quite a bit of understanding of physics.

It may have been because I’ve been very busy recently, and getting to bed late and already tired, it was a tough read. I had to let go of it for a while and read something lighter because I found myself re-reading the same pages again, realizing I didn’t understand what I had read. Luckily (!) I’ve had to go to the synchrotron twice this month, which meant a lot of traveling, and thus a lot of time to read and write.

While I may say I’m writing a summary for you, the truth is I’m writing it for myself; hoping that it will help me remember the concepts and ideas that I genuinely enjoyed reading and found stimulating.

The first chapter is about defining what music is, and it’s where it was difficult for me to go on. Music theory, erk :/ Plus, while I do believe that I have a fairly extensive knowledge of music for a non-professional, but I lacked some references – or rather, it’s hard for me to make the link between an artist or a song name to the actual song. I often try to tell my friends about a particular song by humming the rhythm because I am unable to remember the name of the artist or the title of song; and let’s not even count the number of times I looked up a song via the hardly complete lyrics I remembered. However, the analogies Daniel Levitin uses do help, and I plan to read that chapter again in the coming months/years, because this is probably the closest I’ll ever be to learn anything about pitches, octaves and the rest.


Well, this still looks a lot like Mandarin to me. I don’t speak Mandarin.

The second chapter is about foot tapping, and even though there was still a lot of jargon, that definitely spoke more to me. I just recently told a colleague who laughed at my moving/dancing around the lab “if it’s got rhythm, it’s impossible for me not to move!”. Which, by the way, is one of the reasons I genuinely enjoy working in the weekend when I decide to: on top of most equipment being free to use immediately, I can just put the music as loud as I want and dance my way around the lab.

The next chapter, “ Music and the mind machine”, has less to do with music and more to do with the brain. One might think I would’ve been highly interested in that chapter, but I already knew the whole content of it so it wasn’t very exciting to read about how our mind can easily trick us for the 100th time. But I guess for non-neuroscientists musicians, this is what chapter 1 felt for me.

Chapters 4 and 5 are about anticipation and classification of music. I don’t think I learned much exciting stuff from these chapters, but it was still a good read. Furthermore, I was interested in the points that were made about non-trained musicians and trained musicians (this will come back later).

Chapter 6 is when it started being really interesting for me. Entitled “After Dessert, Crick Was Still Four Seats Away from Me”, this chapter links music, emotion and the reptilian brain. I do believe that at the deepest level, we enjoy music because of how it makes us feel. Who hasn’t felt that gut-wrenching feeling, when a song resonates with you? True artists can make you go through so many emotions in one song, you could say they are actually playing with emotions, not music. Levitin makes the point that music is so powerful because one of the brain region that activates when we listen to music is the cerebellum, one of the oldest (evolutionary speaking) part of the brain, which is already present in reptiles (thus the reptilian brain). The cerebellum is in charge of tracking timing and movement (since walking, for example, is rhythmic). It also happens to have very important connections to the emotional centers of the brain; it then makes sense that music would be able, through these connections, to awaken strong feelings while we listen to it.


This chapter also convinced me to put Crick’s book What Mad Pursuit on my to-read list. Yes, Crick, from Watson & Crick, the Nobel Prizes of the DNA structure discovery. I’ve had many a discussion about what a shame it is that academics become so highly specialized that they lose the big picture, and with it lose any interest/excitement in the wonders of Nature – only thinking about the next grant, the next funding, the next paper.


All through my studies, my choice has been to limit myself the least possible (I ended up studying science because I figured it would be easier to read novels and philosophy on the side than learn about differential equations or Fourier transforms on my own). That’s one of the advantages (and also a disadvantage in certain instances) of the French system, and especially Grandes Ecoles: you can keep on being a generalist until you pretty much decide on your PhD. The drawback is, I didn’t have many choices open if I wanted to deepen my knowledge of a particular topic – which led me to do it on my free time, not especially a bad thing, but since the schooling time is already pretty heavy, my to-do/to-read list became very long during my studies, and I’m only catching up now. I chose protein crystallography for my PhD because it was at the corner of physics, chemistry and biology, notwithstanding computer science nowadays (which wasn’t the case when Dorothy Hodgkin, every female crystallographer’s role model, solved the insulin structure).


Now isn’t that insulin hexamer beautiful?

But I’m getting away from the topic at hand here, which is (my) brain on music.

The next chapter of the book dissects what it is exactly, that makes a musician a good musician. I’m especially interested in that topic because I can’t play any instrument. I however genuinely enjoy singing and dancing, and while I’m certainly not at any professional level, I guess I’m tolerable enough that my colleagues can still work while I’m singing along to the radio. My forte is dancing though, it just comes very naturally to me.

If you’ve never heard the rule of the 10000 hours needed to become an expert, well now is the time. It’s not the first time I had heard about it, being a Malcolm Gladwell fan, but I was surprised that Levitin almost dismissed any innate source of talent (but his book was published before the 10000 hours started being put under scrutiny). He also mentions that thanks to the use of chunking you can adapt and learn faster (since I read A mind for numbers not long ago it was a good reminder).

The main message: music and memory are highly intertwined. And this is also something that comes up in the following chapter.

Now we’re almost at the end of the book, and the previous to last chapter is about music taste. Why do we like the music we like? Well, we obviously get some priming, starting already from when we are in our mother’s womb. Then the whole culture surrounding us growing up has an influence, and especially who we choose to hang out with during our teenage years, since music has this bonding and social component. Furthermore, the capacity to form new neural connections during adolescence is really high and starts decreasing quickly afterwards. This indicates that if you haven’t been exposed to a certain type of activity or music genre, even briefly, it will be much harder for you to learn a new skill or appreciate a different type of music later in life. This is due to the fact that during development, there is a certain amount of time dedicated to the formation of new connections, and after that time has elapsed, pruning, i.e. consolidation of useful connections and discard of unused ones, starts.

I couldn’t possibly write an entire article about music without at least ONE song by my favorite artist of all times. It’s very interesting for me that Florence + the Machine resonated so well with me, because it’s pretty much the only band I discovered myself and neither my family or friends really like her. While it’s expected I would like her music since it’s indie pop-rock, which I do generally appreciate as a genre, nothing explains why her songs have such a strong, physical and emotional toll on me (even if it’s a strong female lead, as one of my friends likes to point out I like).

Anyhow it’s probably to late for me to become really good at playing an instrument because I’m over twenty, and most of my neuronal patterns are already being consolidated. Plus, since I also have really big issues with anything like painting or sculpting, I cannot say I have been primed for eye-hand coordination. Still, one day I will learn how to play the cello – after all, you don’t only learn things to be the best, right? Furthermore, I’d like to think that I like change and learning new things more than the average, so hopefully I keep my brain very plastic :p (Levitin does mention that there are individual differences).

In the final chapter, entitled The Music Instinct, Levitin explores why music might be an evolutionary advantage. One of the interesting points is that music could have emerged before speech, which is something I had never really thought about. While a lot of this chapter’s content is hypothetical, the main idea is that music, and dance (since it is a cultural construction to separate both as they are so intimately linked) have had an important role in courtship, through its power to remain ingrained for long times in our brains and the feelings and emotions it can stir. Indeed, who has never had a song stuck into their brain? I often keep a new song I like on repeat  until the next one, and I can easily get obsessed with a song if I recall it and cannot listen to it.

Spoiler alert: this is how the book (and this article) ends:

“As a tool for activation of specific thoughts, music is not as good as language. As a tool for arousing feelings and emotions, music is better than language. The combination of the two -as best exemplified in a love song- is the best courtship display of all.”


The delicate art of women’s fashion

There are two main reasons why I wear the clothes I wear: a) I like them and b) they are comfortable. Whatever I wear, it is likely I will be judged for it (see below). I’d rather wear clothes that I like. It means I am often wearing patterns and colors, because it makes life so much brighter. Plus, I become the most popular grown-up amongst 5 to 8 years old when I wear my bird of paradise leggings, to the sound of “mamaaaa kijk hoe leeeeeeeeuk” (finger pointing at my leggings). And making the day of a child slightly better is worth tons of bonus points in my book.


It also means I wear a lot of short clothing. I get warm very easily, and I sweat a lot, so especially in yoga class I easily start swimming/slipping into in a puddle. The easiest is then for me to wear as little as possible, even if I’m not practicing hot yoga – it prevents having a drenched shirt glueing to my skin. Notwithstanding the fact that wearing shorts enables to see the muscles, and also the knee alignment. If it’s summer, there’s the added bonus of cycling bare legs, which is one of the small things that I love.


Being judged for what I wear or don’t is a given. Even if it probably started before that, I started noticing it when I first got breasts, when I was around 13-14 years old. Clearly, I do have breasts, and for some reason it makes (some) people uncomfortable. Now, whatever I wear, I will always have breasts. So a shirt that looks perfectly proper and innocent on someone less well-endowed will not have the same effect on me. It’s something I’ve had to internalize, from a young age. Because we do live in rape culture, and if a woman is raped when she was wearing something short or deemed “inappropriate” (by whose standards, I wonder?) it must be her fault.


Terre des femmes (non-profit women’s right organisation) 2015 advertisement campaign.

Meanwhile, Suit Supply keeps on making advertising campaigns where they objectify women under the freedom of speech cover. Yep, situation hasn’t improved since my last complain. It’s their whole brand marketing that is based on the idea that women are sexual objects only there for decoration and pleasing men whenever they want to. How better to sell men’s clothing but put tiny men (so you don’t even see the clothes you’re trying to sell) on naked boobs? And that’s proper advertising, but if I’m out in the park doing yoga wearing only my sportsbra and shorts,  I‘m not being humble and respecting the practice?


Remind me what you’re trying to sell? Men’s clothes?

But the strangest of it all is that the one time I did get sexually assaulted, I was covered up from head to toe: it was winter, and I was wearing long trousers and a huge coat. So the one guy that actually tried to rape me (thankfully without success but I was lucky enough that people came by) was not “attracted” to me because I was “provocatively” dressed.

I think after that happened I really stopped caring about what people may think of how I dress. I dress for myself and that’s it. Still, I will be judged for what I wear or don’t wear, and part of the so-called tolerant yoga community will think I’m doing it to get attention. I’m not “showing off” my body (I’m not that secure about how good I look, and even if I were, I would think I’m not that vain.) I’m not trying to seduce anyone in yoga class, believe me. First, I’m way too absorbed trying to lift my big toe separately from the others. Second, I’m sweating like crazy, not wearing make-up, and it’s unlikely I’m perfectly shaved – which, once again, would be the expectations for a female human looking for a male partner. I’d hope my future partner would like me for who I am and not what I look like, but I’ve been told these are high expectation. Can’t expect a “modern” guy to accept the fact that women have hair on their legs!

To be honest, living in the Netherlands has been liberating because I’m not getting any attention. Or at least way less than in France. And I’ve gotten so used to that freedom, when I get remembered I’m still being judged about what I chose to wear or not, it makes me write articles like this one 🙂

Of body image, judgement & happiness

In what seems to be a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I used to care quite a lot about looks. Now you may say it sounds shallow, and it certainly is; however I do not know anyone who at least during their teenage years did not care about what they looked like (usually: not like what they wished they would).

My mother is a beautiful, slim, elegant woman. She incarnates the whole essence of a French woman. Growing up in her shadow, it was difficult to come after such a role model. Especially when I look a lot like her, except I have a tendency to easily put on weigh and skin problems. I’m pretty much the only one in the family (got the wrong gene combination, apparently. That, or I was brought up when the world was already going wrong nutrition wise). So from the time I started caring about looks, I always felt I was too fat. Even when I wasn’t. I had decided what weigh was the weigh I should be weighing, and I wasn’t weighing it so I was unhappy.


My mom, incarnated by Scarlet Johanson for a champagne advertisement 😉


I was never able to follow a diet after I gained weigh due to the treatments I had for my skin problems in high school (excepting the crash diet I followed in the emergency month before my brother’s wedding: I din’t fit in the dress anymore!). I had gained so much weigh so fast, I was starving myself even with hunger suppressers, and still gaining weigh. I gave up on apples for snacks, low-fat yoghurt and weighing food, and never looked back. Well, except for the apples.

Then came prep class, and while I was eating crap (basically french fries every day), I was so stressed out that I lost weigh. I was happy about it. Funny how a number on a scale can dictate whether you’re gonna be in a good or bad mood.

When I moved to Montpellier, I was deeply unhappy. It turned out that the people at school, with whom I had hope to share at least a common love for science, were mainly interested in going out, getting wasted, hooking up, and/or boasting about how good they were. I was away from friends and family, in an amazing city where, sadly, most people judge books by their cover. Unexpectedly, since you live half naked most of the year and there is such pressure on how you look, I started putting on weigh. I stopped exercising apart from the occasional run and Aikido session once in a while. But no more dancing, which until then had always been a part of my life.

In my second year, my grandmother passed. I left for Germany. My grandfather passed. 2010 was an horrible year. But at least one positive thing happened: I went against my mom. It wasn’t the first time I was opposing my parents; in high school I had a pretty big fight with them after they found out I was taking the pill. My opinion hasn’t changed on the topic, I’d have thought they’d have been happy I was being responsible – but hey, it probably isn’t easy to realize your kid is growing up. Anyhow, I will always remember going shopping with my mom after my bag got lost at the airport because of the snowstorm; she said something like “those trousers will be perfect once you loose a bit of weigh”. I answered “those trousers are perfect now and I’m not planning to lose any weigh”. End of discussion. I stopped weighing myself, and I stopped being unhappy when the number wasn’t the one I wished it would be. I haven’t weighed myself since, so I literally have no idea how much I weigh. My weigh control ever since has been fitting into my favorite jeans 🙂

I’ve already told the tale of how much out of shape I was when I started doing yoga. I was also pretty self-conscious. I would, however, already get rid of my shirt when it would be too warm during the class. I do realize it’s not super common – however, I have never cared and probably never will. I’m boiling people!!!! The only sensible thing to do is to get rid of my shirt. If men are allowed to practice without shirt, I should be able to practice in my sports bra.

There are many an article about starting yoga to get “the yoga body”, the “beach body”, etc etc. Well. If you really want to get that body, I’d argue yoga is probably not the most optimal way to get it. I could have had a much better looking body much quicker with weigh training or HIIT. However, doing yoga has enabled me to genuinely stop caring about what my body looks like, and instead focus on all the amazing things my body can do. My first yoga class was a revelation for that, for the first time in a very long time, I was connecting with my body again, not in terms of what it looked like but in terms of how it felt. And since I started practicing yoga, the answer is usually “pretty great”!