This is Your Brain on Music

Book Notes on the human perception of music, rhythm, duration, and tempo.

From This is Your Brain on Music – the Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin


p1 quoting Robert Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers p.xii “Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.”

p6 “Only relatively recently in our own culture, five hundred years or so ago did a distinction arise that cut society in two, forming separate classes of music performers and music listeners. Throughout most of the world and for most of human history, music making was as natural an activity as breathing and walking, and everyone participated.”

p9 “Music listening, performance, and composition engage nearly every area of the brain that we have so far identified, and involve nearly every neural subsystem.”

1. What is Music – From Pitch to Timbre

p14 “The basic elements of any sound are loudness, pitch, contour, duration (or rhythm), tempo, timbre, spacial location, and reverberation. Our brains organize these fundamental perceptual attributes into higher-level concepts… and these include meter, harmony, and melody. When we listen to music, we are actually perceiving multiple attributes or “dimensions.”

p15 “Rhythm refers to the durations of a series of notes [tones], and to the way that they group together into units.”

p16 “Meter is created by our brains by extracting information from rhythm and loudness cues, and refers to the way in which tones are grouped with one another across time.”

p21 “Newton was the first to point out that light is colorless, and that consequently color has to occur inside our brains. He wrote, ‘The waves themselves are not colored.’ … light waves are characterized by different frequencies of oscillation, and when they impinge on the retina of an observer, they set off a chain of neurochemical events, the end product of which is an internal mental image we call color.”

p22 “… sound is a mental image created by the brain in response to vibrating molecules.”

“Humans who are not suffering from any kind of hearing loss can usually hear sounds from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.”

p29 “When we double or halve a frequency, we end up with a note that sounds remarkably similar to the one we started out with. This relationship, a frequency ratio of 2:1 o 1:2, is called the octave. It is so important that, in spite of the large differences that exist between musical cultures – between Indian, Balinese, European, Middle Eastern, Chinese, and so on – every culture we know of has the octave as the basis for its music, even if it has little else in common with other musical traditions.”

[chromatic scale = 12 notes + octaves]

p39 “All natural objects in the world have several modes of vibration. A piano string actually vibrates at several different rates at once… The air molecules vibrate at several rates simultaneously, not just a single rate.
“An analogy is the several types of motion of the earth that are simultaneously occurring. We know that the earth spins on its axis once every twenty-four hours, that it travels around the sun once every 365.25 [sic] days, and that the entire solar system is spinning along with the milky way galaxy. Several types of motion, all occurring at once.”

p40 “Surprisingly, these… frequencies are often mathematically related to each other in a very simple way: as integer multiples of one another. So if you pluck a string and its slowest vibration frequency is one hundred times per second, the other vibration frequencies will be 2 x 100 (200 Hz), 3 x 100 (300 Hz) etc… When an instrument creates energy at frequencies that are integer multiples such as this, we say that the sound is harmonic, and we refer to the pattern of energy at different frequencies as the overtone series. There is evidence that the brain responds to such harmonic sounds with synchronous neural firings…
“The brain is so attuned to the overtone series that if we encounter a sound that has all the components except the fundamental, the brain fills it in for us in a phenomenon called restoration of the missing fundamental.”

p 53 “Rhythm and meter are the engine driving virtually all music, and it is likely that they were the very first elements used by our ancestors to make protomusics… While i believe timbre is now at the center of our appreciation of music, rhythm has held supreme power over listeners for much longer.”

2. Foot Tapping – Discerning Rhythm, Loudness & Harmony

[Sonny] Rollins improvised for three and a half minutes by playing the same note over and over again with different rhythms and subtle changes in timing. All that power in one note! It wasn’t his melodic innovation that got the crowd to their feet – it was rhythm… At a neural level, playing an instrument requires the orchestration of regions in our primitive, reptilian brain…as well as higher cognitive systems such as the motor cortex…and the planning regions of our frontal lobes, the most advanced region of the brain.”

p 55-6 “Briefly, rhythm refers to the lengths of notes, tempo refers to the pace of a piece of music (the rate at which you would tap your foot to it), and meter refers to when you tap your foot hard versus light, and how these hard and light taps group together to form larger units.”

p 57 “Tempo refers to the pace of a piece of music… If a song is a living, breathing entity, you might think of the tempo as its gait…or its pulse – the rate at which the heart of the song is beating.”

p 59 “…the cerebellum…is believed to contain a system of timekeepers for our daily lives and to synchronize to the music we are hearing… The basal ganglia…are almost certainly involved, as well, generating and shaping rhythm, tempo, and meter.”

p 67 [Money and Salisbury Hill are in 7/4 time]

p 70 “Rhythm is a game of expectation. When we tap our feet we are predicating what is going to happen in the music next. We also play a game of expectation in music with pitch. Its rules are key and harmony.”

p 71 “The song ‘One Note Samba‘ by Antonio Carlos Jobim actually contains many notes, but one note is featured throughout the song with changing chords accompanying it, and we hear a variety of different shades of musical meaning as this unfolds.”

p 75-6 “Grouping is a hierarchical process and the way in which our brains form perceptual groups is a function of a great many factors. Some grouping factors are intrinsic to the objects themselves – shape, color, symmetry, contrast, and principles that address the continuity of lines and edges of the object. Other grouping factors are psychological, that is, mind based..what our expectations are about how objects should go together.”

3. Behind the Curtain – Music and the Mind Machine

p 102 “Low-level, bottom up processing of basic elements occurs in the peripheral and phylogenetically older parts of our brains; the term low-level refers to the perception of elemental or building-block attributes of a sensory stimulus. High-level processing occurs in more sophisticated parts of our brains that take neural projections from the sensory perceptions and from a number of low-level processing units; this refers to the combining of low-level processing units; this refers to the combining of low-level elements into an integrated representation. High-level processing is where it all comes together, where our minds come to an understanding of form and content…
“At the same time as feature extraction is taking place in the cochlea, auditory cortex, brain stem, and cerebellum, the higher-level centers of our brain are receiving a constant flow of information about what has extracted so far; this information is continually updated, and typically rewrites the older information. As our centers for higher thought – mostly in the frontal cortex – receive these updates, they are working to predict what will come next, based on several factors:

  • what has already come before in the piece of music we’re hearing
  • what we remember will come next if music is familiar
  • what we expect to come next if the genre or style is familiar..
  • any additional information we’ve been given…

p 103 “The top-down and bottom-up processes inform each other in an ongoing fashion.”

p 106 “Our brains are exquisitely sensitive to timing information.”

4. Anticipation – What We Expect from Liszt (and Ludacris)

p 123 “The best place to begin to look at expectation in the musical brain is in how we track chord sequences in music over time. The most important way that music differs from visual art is that it is manifested over time.”

p 127 “Listening to music and attending to its syntactic features – its structure – activated a particular region of the frontal cortex on the left side called the pars orbitalis… we also found activation in an analogous area of the right hemisphere…attending to structure in music requires both halves of the brain.”

“We found evidence for the existence of a brain region that processes structure in general, when that structure is conveyed over time.”

5. You Know my Name, Look up the Number – How We Categorize Music

p 162 “A maxim of memory theory is that unique cues are the most effective at bringing up memories; the more items or contexts a particular cue is associated with, the less effective it will be at bringing up a particular memory.”

6. After Dessert, Crick was still Four Seats away from Me
– Music, Emotion, and the Reptilian Brain

p 165 “We listen to music that has a pulse… This pulse, with a few exceptions, is regular and evenly spaced in time. This regular pulse causes us to expect events to occur at certain points in time. Like the clickety-clack of a railroad track, it lets us know that we’re continuing to move forward, that we’re in motion, that everything is all right.”

p 180 “…the inner ear doesn’t send all of its connections to the auditory cortex… There are projections directly from the inner ear to the cerebellum…that coordinate the movements involved in orienting the animal to the auditory stimulus in space.”

p 181 “The auditory startle is the fastest and arguably the most important of our startle responses.”

p 184 “Part of the ‘astonishing hypothesis’ of [Francis] Crick‘s book was that consciousness emerges from the synchronous firing, at 40 Hz, of neurons in the brain.”

7. What Makes a Musician? – Expertise Dissected

8. My Favorite Things – Why Do We Like the Music We Like?

p 217 “Inside the womb, surrounded by amniotic fluid, the fetus hears sounds. It hears the heartbeat of its mother… And the fetus hears music… The auditory system of the fetus is fully functional about twenty weeks after conception.”

p 222 “…the developing brain requires months or years to reach full auditory processing capacity.”

9. The Music Instinct – Evolution’s #1 Hit

p 245 quoting Darwin the Descent of Man “I conclude that musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female progenitors of mankind for the sake of charming the opposite sex.”

p252 “Additional possibilities have been argued as well. One is social bonding and cohesion. Collective music making may encourage social cohesions…”


342 Days to Dec 21st 2012

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