Friday, August 24

"This is Your Brain on Music"

"One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time is Daniel J. Levitin’s This is Your Brain on Music (2007). It covers a wide range of disciplines (neuroscience, psychology, musical theory) to explain the various processes that go on in our brain when we listen to music. Why do we really like certain types of music and completely dislike other types? Why does certain music touch us at an emotional level even more than language or poetry? ”If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  Simply, no. Sound is a mental image created by the brain in response to vibrating molecules. Similarly, there can be no pitch without a human or animal present.” Levitin provides eloquent, well-researched, and inspiring answers to these and similar questions, helping us to understand music, and ultimately ourselves, better. Here are some of his most interesting observations:

Creativity vs. theory: “For the artist, the goal of the painting or musical composition is not to convey literal truth, but an aspect of a universal truth that will continue to move and to touch people even as contexts, societies, and cultures change. … For the scientist the goal of a theory is to replace an old truth, while accepting that someday this theory too will be replaced by new truth because that is the way science advances.”
Why we like certain music: “The appreciation we have for music is intimately related to our ability to learn the underlying structure of the music we like and to make predictions about what will come next. Composers imbue music with emotion by knowing what our expectations are, and then very deliberately controlling when those expectations will be met, and they won’t. The thrills, chills, and tears we experience from music are the result of having our expectations artfully manipulated by a skilled composer and the musicians who interpret that music. … Songs that we keep coming back to for years play around with expectations just enough that they are always at least a little bit surprising.”
On success and failure: “On average, successful people have had many more failures than unsuccessful people. This seems counter-intuitive. How could successful people have failed more often than everyone else? Failure is unavoidable and sometimes happens randomly. It’s what you do after the failure that is important. Successful people have a stick-to-itiveness, they don’t quit.”
How our brains organize and remember information: ”The reason that chunking is important is because our brains have limits on how much information they can actively keep track of. There is no practical limit to long-term memory that we know of, but working memory, the contents of our present awareness, is severely limited. Generally to nine pieces of information.”

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