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 Munch : Van Gogh exhibit, part 1

This Saturday I went to the Munch : Van Gogh exhibit in Amsterdam. I had been looking forward to the exhibit since they announced it back in May. Sadly, the friend I came to the exhibit with didn’t feel well (great idea to go see Munch with someone who suffers from anxiety, I really overdid myself this time!) and we had to leave before seeing everything; which is why there will be a part 2 coming after I go back.

The exhibit is organised as a parallel between Van Gogh and Munch’s work, theme by theme, with paintings from other artists relevant to the period and theme. It is chronological as well, so you really get an idea of how they developed their unique styles while being inspired by the same environment.

The first thing I realized is that I actually know very little from Munch’s work! Having never been to Norway, I had never been to an exhibit dedicated to his work. I knew, of course, “The Scream” (which I got to see live for the first time!) and some of his other work around the same themes of angst, like Metabolism or Cupid and Psyche.

Metabolism, by Edvard Munch. Or when Adam and Eve meet Science.

Cupid and Psyche, by Munch. Beautiful.

I also saw “Hands” which I did not know about but is still in the same theme, and which I enjoyed very much. I could relate both to the woman’s point of view and the will of protection against all these hands that want to grab us (metaphorically) but also from the viewer’s perspective of when you covet something or someone so much you would like to capture them, grab them and not leave them any way out.

The hands, by Munch. I really like the movement of the hands, how her shoulders crunch forward, and the red pants, of course.

But he obviously painted a LOT of art which was not around this theme, and I was able to see his self portraits, Fertility, and Snow landscape among others which made a big impression on me.

Snow landscape, Thüringen, Edvard Munch. This. This piece is very powerful. Such a sense of beauty and calm reaches out from the painting… The colors are so vivid, I couldn’t stop staring at it. Maybe my favorite piece of the collection, and I’m usually not one for landscapes which I tend to find quite boring.

But I didn’t only learn about Munch’s paintings while I was at the exhibit. While I have been many times at the Van Gogh museum and have quite an in-depth knowledge of his art, I was happy to see paintings which are maybe less well-known (or at least which I had not seen before) and which were now worthily under the spotlight due to the parallel with Munch’s work.

I’ll name two: Dance hall in Arles, which is not a typical Van Gogh but whose colors and use of space I love, and The bridge at Trinquetaille (any idea with which of Munch’s work it was put in parallel to? No? Answer in the description, but it’s quite obvious really :p).

Dance hall in Arles, by Vincent Van Gogh. Look at the use of that space! It’s so crowded yet the painting really doesn’t feel oppressive at all. The colors pop out, and such a skill in the perspective as well as the expressions on the ladies’ faces… Amazing.

The bridge at Trinquetaille, by Van Gogh. Once again, look at the use of color! Especially the blue of the bridge side and the yellow sky, and these details… I have to say that something weird happens to me perspective-wise with this painting, I tend to see the blue side of the bridge as coming up instead of going down in first instance. Anyhow, if you’ve read until now, you’ve earned the right to know it was in parallel to Munch’s Scream 😉

Generally speaking, what I’ve seen from the exhibit has been very, very well done. The parallels are relevant and allow a better understanding of both master’s works. While I can’t show all the painting I would like to, I want to mention that the parallel I could relate to the most (classified under “spirituality”, funnily – or relevantly?) was the two “Starry night” paintings, see below.

Starry night, by Munch. So poetic and soft, very different from the usual pressure felt when looking at his most well-known masterpieces. I really have something about how he paints snow…

Starry night, by Van Gogh. Classic.

So that’s it for this first part of the exhibit, about which there is a lot to say. Can’t wait to go back and see what I missed!

I was planning to leave you to reflect on a quote from Munch about suffering and masks people wear, which was on the wall of the exhibit where the stairs are, but I didn’t write it down properly thinking I would easily find it back by googling, and it’s not the case. But while searching for it, I read this one which may be more relevant to me:

An artwork is a crystal. A crystal has a soul and a mind, and the artwork must also have these.

Art & Physics, by Leonard Schlain (2006)

I have just finished reading Art & Physics, Parallel visions in space, time and light. I didn’t know what to expect; I bought the book after watching the documentary from Shlain’s daughter, Connected, on Netflix. Even though I thought the documentary was not very good, mainly because it felt a bit like an unfinished, messy product, some of the themes and ideas were interesting.

I’m interested in art and in science, so what could possibly go wrong with a book about these two subjects? Lots, actually. Could be very boring.  Could be unavailable for the reader. Though an art amateur, I have no training in art history (even though my dad is an art history professor…) and limited knowledge, and same applies about physics and the theory of relativity (even though I have studied quantum theory in my first years at university, I am far from considering myself knowledgeable on the topic).

But none of my doubts were confirmed; Shlain is a good writer, and makes his theory and other’s very available for the general public. I honestly couldn’t put the book down. The book is well documented (the scientist in me appreciates the references to actual scientific articles for each claim he makes), entertaining, full of relevant quotes (both from artists and scientists) and artwork, but just what is necessary to illustrate his point, as well as clear graphs to help understand the physical theory, there is nothing much I can criticize about Art & Physics. 

Even though most of the book is based on a western vision of art and the world, he still made an effort to have at least a chapter about more eastern theories and art forms, which the nipponophile I am appreciated even though it could definitely have been more prominent.

This book also made me understand a bit better contemporary art, which until now I had been very hermetic to. The parallels drown with physical theories helped me to understand better both worlds, which I hope was the goal of the author, to whom I say “well done”!

The book almost ends on the differences between left and right brain, apparently a favorite topic of Shlain, which he wrote about in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, which I have put on my to-read list. I don’t want to go through all the points I thought were interesting or all the “aha!” moments I had while reading the book (I also learned why Jurassic World is complete bullsh*t, but then again, I have never been especially interested in Dinosaurs), but I do want to mention that I realized one of the reasons I really like yoga, and especially Iyengar yoga is because it likely balances my left and right hemisphere.

I have read some people criticize Shlain’s knowledge of the theory of relativity, and/or find it confusing; if that is the case I must admit my own knowledge is not sufficient to notice the pitfalls. He has also been accused of cherry-picking his examples, and re-reading the history. I do get the point, but I still think his ideas are interesting; after all, aren’t we all seeing the world through our own lens? In any case, I found Art & Physics to be a bit of a literature UFO and unlike anything I had read previously.

I hope I made you want to read the book, and if you do, please let me know what you thought of it; I’d love to discuss it further since I think there is a lot of food for thoughts, and a second lecture once I have digested part of the information will be in order.

PS: I have just noticed this lecture by Shlain is available on youtube.

” The eye, which is the window of the soul, is the chief organ whereby the understanding can have the most complete and magnificent view of the infinite works of Nature” – Leonardo da Vinci

Matisse : the cut-outs, a brief feedback

Today I have been to “The oasis of Matisse”, an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The main pieces of the exhibit were from the cut-outs. Interestingly, I had been on the closing weekend to the MOMA in NYC to see an exhibition about the cut-outs in February. I thought it would be interesting to compare the two exhibits.

First, I was happy to see that the Stedelijk was not packed, which allowed to take a proper look at the art. At the MOMA, I thought I was going to suffocate and ended up taking only a glance at some of the art because I could not move in any direction. Note to self: never go to MOMA on the closing weekend of a popular art exhibit.

I am under the impression that there were less pieces exposed at the Stedelijk but bigger murals, and generally that there was more space, allowing each piece to stand on its own while still in context. Notwithstanding the people, I do think that the exhibition at the Stedelijk was bigger, and also from the way the museum is built, the rooms are simply very spacious. Which is very appreciable when you are looking at the cut-outs.

The acrobat, Matisse

The acrobat, Matisse

I missed “The acrobat”, which I had really enjoyed seeing at MOMA, it’s not everyday that you can admire such an artistic vision of Urdhva Dhanurasana (an article on yoga and art is coming soon, I promise). Plus I had this idea that I may be able to get a picture of myself in Urdhva Dhanurasana in front of the Acrobat, which would have made the perfect profile picture, and that didn’t happen. Oh well.

In my opinion, the best part of the “The Oasis” was the room on “The Jazz”. A full room was dedicated to it, with most of the prints placated on the walls. I spent some time lost wandering around the room, reading the beautiful, magnificently calligraphed thoughts from an artist I admire.

Blessed are the ones who sing with all their heart, in the righteousness of their heart.  Finding joy and the sky, in the trees, in the flowers.

Blessed are the ones who sing with all their heart, in the righteousness of their heart.
Finding joy and the sky, in the trees, in the flowers.

This page in particular caught my attention, since whoever know me knows that I sing ALL THE TIME. And definitely from the bottom of my heart. The translation (made by me) doesn’t render that well, but I swear in French it is very poetic. Definitely struck a chord within me.

My main issue is that there was no translation of what it all meant in English; which made me realize how lucky I am to have been born in a country with such a rich history and especially gifted with wonderful artists, but also what a shame it was that I was unable to share this joy with the friend I was visiting the exhibit with, unless I was to spend 30 minutes translating each page one by one.

At MOMA, they were exposing much less of Jazz, and it was under glass, not on the walls; which made it harder to appreciate the work as a whole, or even at all; but there were translations, so at least I could communicate with the friend I was with during that exhibit about why I was so excited.

Le Loup, Matisse

Le Loup, Matisse

Finally, I could not NOT include The Wolf. My last name is related to the animal, so since I was a kid it has always played an important role and the iconography of my life. This one is kinda scary…