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Dispatches From the Fringe

This Is Your Brain

A stunning review of a book that probably changed my life a little bit (This Is Your Brain On Music):

Half-whispered in the background, it’s hard to get too far away from suspicion. The question remains: Does analyzing music scientifically take away from the aesthetic appreciation?

I had once thought of music as the ultimate proof of the glorious irrelevancy of science. But it’s really no different than any other pleasure. Does learning cosmology detract from the beauty of a star filled night? Can a couple of physics lessons dull the gaping excitement of seeing a massive rainbow absorb the sky? I conquered this ambivalence personally, while lying in the sun, on a hot day, at altitude, following a final in a physics class. Everything clicked together in my head, the nuclear reaction I watch sizzling eight minutes and eighteen seconds ago, the light as waves, the heat as energy, the energy as mass, the waves as particles. It all clicked, and it was fine. We were all vibrating together in the same rich meaninglessness, and a good feeling felt good whether I purposefully conquered every little detail or it blindsided me and left my head spinning.

That’s the day I got it. That science is not a static pool of knowledge. It is not a religion. It is not a method. It is a process, and a spiritual one at that. That was the day, lying there, absorbing photons and resonating passively in the hum, the Ohmmmmm. Science is as much a quest as any other system of belief. And nothing is off limits. Nothing is reduced by knowing that another layer of explanation can be sought out.

And what better subject to tackle scientifically than the beauty of music. Like consciousness, like science, music too is an arbitrary punctuation around organically transmitted, unconsciously determined, preferred patterns of influenced interactions.

So, how’s the book?

Not bad. He does a nice job of illustrating the importance of music in our lives and the emotional impact music can convey. He has a nice introductory section where he defines the basic terms of music such as pitch, rhythm, tempo. It’s the kind of stuff you get the first week in a music appreciation class, and Levitin does a nice job with it. He never takes his eye off the bigger questions though, for example, he opens his definition of pitch with the disclaimer: “Pitch is a purely psychological construct.” He then needs an introduction to neuroscience before he can connect the two streams, discussing the hotter than ever topics of mind, brain, and consciousness. Of course, he has to throw in a little introduction to evolutionary theory as well.

The mistake armchair Anthropologists frequently fall into is taking a complicated concept, music in this case, or intelligence in other infamous cases, and reify it as if it were a single discrete thing. So let’s come up with theories of selection for musicality as if it were the scientific equivalent of Mendel’s wrinkled garden peas. But Levitin does a nice job of showing how different parts of the brain process different aspects of music. He gives a nice sense of the complexity involved and the parallel processing necessary between different realms of music. If you think about it, this should come as no surprise to anyone who has listened to a one-year old discover language. They can babble with the rhythms, intonations, and prosody of fluent speech well before they have the actual words. It should come as no surprise to any musician, anyone who has experienced that moment when the execution shifts from working memory to procedural memory. My favorite part of playing the piano is reaching the point where my cerebellum and basal ganglia are doing the heavy lifting. Then I can sit back and enjoy the music, like some kind of twisted grandiose self-sycophantic fan, without thinking about what I’m doing.

So formulating the question as “What evolutionary advantages were conferred on individuals who exhibit musical behaviors?” is a mental exercise. A fun and pleasantly meaningless one. Musical sensibility is much more likely an offshoot of multiple smaller functions of the brain, such as language processing, mother-infant interactions, the novelty seeking and cognitive flexibility behind creativity, or empathy, all of which individually may respond over time to certain selective forces. This does not mean, as Steven Pinker and the Blank Slaters would assert, that music is a meaningless accident. It is a part of all the systems that contribute to it, an echo of numerous other functions that comprise our humanity.

When a music lover hypothesizes that musical instincts may have been the prime factor in promoting the cognitive development of the species, it is no more a sophisticated argument than when a drug enthusiast, such as Terrance McKenna, proposes that psychedelics were the primary force behind the expansion of the human cranium. Isn’t it funny? No matter how far we come, we’re still story tellers creating creation myths in our own image. So my personal hypothesis: The primary force behind the evolution of human intelligence is the drive to drink Tanqueray and play backgammon while listening to Gabby La La. You heard it hear first. Evidence pending.

It is an ambitious book in its scope, especially when the conversation also needs to be liberally peppered with references to Philip Glass and John Cage, Bernstein and Bach, Sinatra and Parker. Well, you know musicians love showing off their chops. Anyway, thumbs up for a solid, thought-provoking read. You’ve just got to appreciate anyone who uses “mirror neurons” and “iPods” in the same sentence.

Damn. Well played.


Written by Ryan Corvidae

April 2, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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