This is Your Brain on Music (book review)

BrainOnMusicWhen I first came across Daniel Levitin’s book “This is Your Brain on Music I assumed it would tell me everything I needed to know about musical memory from a neuroscience perspective. But – fortunately for the future of this blog – it didn’t! The book is subtitled “Understanding a Human Obsession” which I think is quite a nice summary of the flavour of the writing. More than anything else, the book extols the importance of music in our lives and highlights the relative ease with which everyone remembers and enjoys music. We are all expert listeners, even if some of us lack expertise in performance. Few people in the modern world go through a single day without listening to music of some kind. We’re addicted. We use it to change or augment our moods, to relax or invigorate ourselves, and to accompany our daily lives. The fact that numerous regions on both sides of the brain are involved in processing music undoubtedly contributes to making it such a holistic and satisfying experience.

A  whole chapter of the book is devoted to musical memory in relation to tune recognition. The remarkable thing about musical memory, I now realise, is how naturally good we are at it. In general, we’re actually quite bad at remembering detailed information. Our memories are notoriously malleable and even minor interventions can drastically alter the accuracy of recall– a problem that plagues eye-witness testimonials. And yet we are able to recognise hundreds or thousands of tunes without having consciously studied them, and recall is unaffected by altering the pitch or tempo. The fact that tunes are still recognisable after substantial alteration (think of cover albums) indicates that the relationship between notes, not just absolute information about each note, is encoded in our memory. However, when asked to sing a familiar song, most people apparently sing at close to the original recorded pitch and tempo, indicating that we do also encode absolute information in long term memory.

Levitin makes an interesting comparison between our memory and a tape-recorder. Although we do seem to preserve music very accurately in our memory, suggesting a ‘record-keeping’ mechanism, there are a few interesting differences. Firstly, when listen mentally to a piece, we can easily change the tempo (to dash through an uninteresting verse, for instance) without affecting the pitch – something tape recorders are singularly useless at doing. In our minds, pitch and tempo are encoded separately. Moreover, unlike a tape recorder, we are not agnostic to the start and stop points; the information is hierarchically encoded, and even someone with no formal musical training is more likely to recall music from important structural boundaries. Tantalizingly, Leveitin states that there is no known limit to long term memory; the barrier to recalling everything we have ever known is not one of storage but of finding and activating the appropriate retrieval cues.

The book only briefly looks at musical memory in the context of performance, comparing it with other forms of expert memory. The importance of building hierarchical structures based on existing mental schema is highlighted, and the usefulness of chunking is also emphasized – I’ve covered both of these topics in detail previously. But one interesting aspect that Levetin focuses on is that despite our astonishingly accurate musical memories, most of us turn to music not to marvel at a pleasingly well organised series of notes, but for an emotional experience. We don’t worry about each individual note, but are transported by the whole experience to a different time and place, a different mood, another world. When playing from memory, we shouldn’t focus on the detail, but on the experience. “A musician needs his brain state to match the emotional state he is trying to express.” The ability to draw an audience into a performance, and imbue the music with emotion and meaning, is special kind of ability that goes far beyond musical memory, while at the same time being intimately associated with it. But gratifyingly, as Levitin boldly declares,  “without memory there would be no music”.

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About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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