Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Book Review: This is your brain on music

Levitin, D. J. (2007). This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. London, England: Plume. ISBN: 978-0-452-28852-2. 322 pgs.

One of the advantages of travelling by train - lots of time to read, think, and generally de-stress! The book listed above was one of two books that I picked up for reading on my recent train vacation. The first, Travels with Farley, was excellent but more geared towards the "recreational reading" side of my brain. This book was the second that I read, however, I had picked it for professional, rather than recreational, reasons.

The book, quite simply, is a great read for the professional and non-professional alike. Although the concepts can be quite involved, Levitin does a great job of writing the book, "for the general reader and not for my colleagues... (p. 12)". It is easily understood and yet I found that I needed to take the book in chunks, reading a maximum of two chapters at a time before setting it aside and contemplating the deeper meanings and relationships to my work as a music therapist.

Along the way, there were a number of surprises. The first, that neuroscience divides the "Study of the mind" and "Study of the brain". He explains it this way:

I am not interested in going on a fishing expedition to try every possible musical stimulus and find out where it occurs in the brain...The point for me isn't to develop a map of the brain, but to understand how it works, how the different regions coordinate their activity together, how the simple firing of neurons and shifting around of neurotransmitters leads to thoughts, laughter, feelings of profound joy and sadness, and how all these, in turn, can lead us to create lasting, meaningful works of art (p. 96).
I had always considered neurology and neuroscience to be concerned only with how the individual parts of the brain were related to music appreciation and interpretation.

The second surprise came from evidence that suggests that memory strength, "is also a function of how much we care about the experience (p. 197)." Professionally, this was a reminder that the work that we do must be client centered, in order to help them to assimilate and consolidate the musical experiences that we/they create during a session.

Finally, there was a discussion of "the music listener" vs. "the music performer/expert". According to the author, "music making has become a somewhat reserved activity in our culture, and the rest of us listen (p. 7)". As music therapists, we encourage everyone to make music, accepting the results as skillful and a reflection of the clients' inner being. Are we simply too accepting or is their something different about how we are wired, such as a desire to see everyone succeed as a "performer of music"?

If I could criticize one aspect of the book, it would be the selection of music. As a music therapist, I use the general rule of thumb that the most significant music for most clients will be music that they experienced in their late adolesence to early adulthood. Levitin seems to fit this mold perfectly with most of the musical examples coming from the 70's and the rock and roll genre. Arguably, no one book can faithfully represent all time periods and musical genres however I would have preferred to see a wider variety of musical genres, and diversity in time periods evident in the musical examples chosen as illustrations.

Professionally, this book was a great confirmation of the meaningfulness of music therapy and the work that I do on a daily basis. I highly encourage everyone to pick up a copy and give it a read. I'll leave you with a challenge that Levitin describes being given by a friend and colleague (p. 51).

Challenge: In six songs, capture the essence of a musical genre such as rock and roll or jazz?

Good luck!