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.
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).
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.”