Auditory Cheesecake for the Brain

Auditory Cheesecake for the Brain
Reviewer: Jason Landry
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This Is Your Brain on Music:
The Science of a Human Obsession
322 pages
First Thus edition
August 28, 2007
ISBN 10:
ISBN 13:

Groundbreaking union of art and science explores the connection between music, its performance, its composition, how we listen to it, why we enjoy it, and the human brain.

“Music is auditory cheesecake.”

Hands down, that is the best quote from this book. At a conference held at MIT, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker stated, and I paraphrase, cheesecake is savory and appealing to your palette, in a similar vein, music is too to certain sections of our brain. I can’t really disagree with him on either example, can you?
The human brain is an extremely intricate and powerful tool that is able to quarterback so many tasks at once that it’s hard for anyone to fully comprehend. Daniel J. Levitin, the author of This is Your Brain on Music, has compiled data from leading scientists an analyzed the ways in which the brain processes music and how we experience sound.

Levitin begins by giving the reader a primer on the elements of music and how they work in unison. Pitch, timbre, key, harmony, loudness, rhythm, meter, and tempo—when they are all working together, the brain senses it, and magic happens. A symphony of neurons creates the sensory experience that we call music.

There were some interesting statements that I pondered over for a bit. Such as, “When we listen to music, we are actually perceiving multiple attributes or “dimensions.” Or how children still in the womb can recognize music and when they hear the song years later, they are usually drawn to it over other like songs. What about people with Alzheimer’s, they might be forgetful, but can remember song lyrics from many years prior due to how our mind places “tags” on important memories from our teenage years.

There seems to be a debate throughout the scientific community between the brain and the mind, whether they are one in the same or two separate things. What they did make perfectly clear is, the brain is not a hard drive per se, it is required to go through an entire computational system in order to identify a song. It requires queues that trigger neurons which form the memories needed to remember. “…Somehow, the cerebellum is able to remember the “settings” it uses for synchronizing to music as we hear it, and it all can recall those settings when we want to sing a song from memory.”

Did you know that it’s increasingly harder to learn a music instrument after the age of 20, rather than before due to the natural synaptic growth of the brain? I did not know this, and it explains so much of why it was harder for me to learn to play the guitar in my 40’s than it is for these young whipper snappers I see all over YouTube. But there is good news. I did find some confirmation pertaining to music lessons and practice. There seems to be something positive to note about the 10,000-hour rule, about mastering a skill whether that be playing music or being an artist or a great golfer. In chapter 7, they gave the example that a professor secretly separated musical students into two groups. Years later, it was the students who practiced the most who ultimately received the highest performance ratings, not necessarily were they the ones in the “more promising” group. So, to all of you late blooming musicians out there, keep practicing—we got this!

Which came first, music or language? Some scientists believe that “music may be the activity that prepared our pre-human ancestors for speech communication and for the very cognitive, representational flexibility necessary to become humans.” If that is the case, then let there be rock! All kidding aside, we owe a great deal to this magical art form.

I wanted to put this book down a few times as I felt like you needed a PhD to comprehend many of the facts that are discussed. If you are into cognitive science, neurology, or psychology, this book is definitely for you. If you are into music, or a musician, or a casual reader, you have been forewarned.


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