This is Your Brain on Music - Book Review

I recently finished up reading "This is Your Brain on Music" by Daniel Levitin, and I found some of the information he shares about what goes on in our brains when we listen to or make music to be really fascinating. So in this week's blog post, I'm sharing some of my favorite parts with you, and how they can relate to our work in learning to play the piano. 

In the introduction of the book Levitin writes "What artists & scientists have in common is the ability to live in an open-ended state of interpretation and reinterpretation of the products of our work." (p. 5) and I completely agree - at least with the musician part of it since I can't really speak for scientists, but as artists we never stop learning. Even when we've completely mastered a piece of music, each time we play it, it is a new & original interpretation. We may strike the notes just a little differently, or emphasize a phrase another way, we may try it slower or faster or put it through any number of grand or small transformations. And even after all this, it is still the same, mostly recognizable piece of music. One of the ideas that Levitin explores at length through the discussion of many research studies is the human brain's ability to recognize familiar songs, even when the song is played in a new key, or with a new rhythm, or in a way we've never heard before. This obviously has a lot to do with the way we encode memory, and the gist of the author's discussion is that our brains save both a specific, absolute memory of familiar songs, as well as a sort of prototype memory that records the pitch & timing intervals between the notes, so that when we hear notes acting in a similar enough way, we can place it in the category alongside that prototype version, and recognize a familiar melody. Without this prototyping, every time we heard Happy Birthday, for example, in a new key, or sung a little slower, or played on a different instrument, we would be perceiving it as an entirely new song - thus making the spontaneous singalongs at birthday celebrations much more difficult. 

"Music breathes, speeds up, and slows down just as the real world does"

Recognizing familiar & favorite music is such an everyday, subconscious thing that this may not sound all that exciting, but it becomes important when as a musician or composer we are attempting to create an experience for an audience and start to play around with these expectations. Levitin shares that "Composers imbue music with emotion by knowing what our expectations are and then very deliberately controlling when those expectations will be met, and when they won't," (pg 111) this is what composers of film scores rely on to create or enhance our emotional experience or surprise responses during the movie. It's also what musicians rely on when playing a piece, and we decide to hold a note out longer or play a little faster, it's to draw out those emotional responses. There are a LOT of brain regions involved in creating this anticipation & following the journey the music takes us on, and that's part of why we find music so enjoyable & stimulating. I'll let the author describe it, because he does a much better job than I could: "computational systems in the brain synchronize neural oscillators with the pulse of the music and begin to predict when the next strong beat will occur. As the music unfolds, the brain constantly updates its estimates of when new beats will occur, and takes satisfaction in matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one, and takes delight when a skillful musician violates that expectation in an interesting way - a sort of musical joke that we're all in on. Music breathes, speeds up, and slows down just as the real world does" (p. 191)

"We can encode those in memory holistically, and then retrieve these features all at once."

Another way that our brain categorizes music, and helps form this anticipation of what to hear or how to play a certain type of music is through 'chunking.' Chunking is what we do when we say "one-eight-hundred" for toll free phone numbers instead of "one-eight-zero-zero" because it means we only have to recall a single number (800) instead of three numbers (8-0-0), and it simplifies our memory process. Musicians use lots of different chunks - we have chords & scales (major/minor/7th etc), cadences (plagal, authentic), modes (aeolian, phrygian, dorian etc), rhythms (latin, swing), chord progressions, 12-bar blues pattern and the list goes on. And beyond that we also eventually learn how to combine these smaller chunks into larger schemas for different genres. In studying music theory we begin to learn which chord progressions & styles lend themselves to classical, blues, pop or rock music, etc, and "we can encode those [schemas] in memory holistically, and then retreive these features all at once." (p. 219) So when your piano teacher assigns scales & cadences to your piano kid, know that they are laying the foundations for these larger chunks of musical knowledge that can be recalled at a moment's notice when they show up in a piece of music, or when we need to improvise a passage, it's not a painstaking, note by note process, instead it's falling back on a learned form. This is one of the major skills of a well-rounded musician.

Now chunking can come back to bite us when we encode the wrong things into a single chunk, for example have you ever watched a young student practice and hit a wrong note, only to have to start the entire piece over? And then they do it again? And maybe again? This is a sign that the student has encoded the entire piece as a single 'chunk' in their memory, and are unable to break it into smaller bites. There are some simple and effective ways we can counteract this, so if you see your piano kid struggling with this symptom, encourage them to make landmarks in their music & practice starting from those landmarks. This essentially helps them break the piece into smaller chunks, and feel more confident starting from somewhere other than the beginning. Also, encourage them to think stylistically, how does this piece feel? What rhythm or pace does it rely on? Could we keep going in the same style & recover without having to go back to the beginning?

"When we say someone is talented, we think we mean they have some innate predisposition to excel, but in the end, we only apply the term retrospectively, after they have made significant achievements."
In a chapter that the piano teacher part of my brain really enjoyed, Levitin explores the question of What Makes a Musician? and the answer shouldn't come as a surprise: enjoyment, positive reinforcement & practice. We are more likely to play music we like, and if we enjoy it, our neurotransmitters are more likely to tag the memory of how to play the piece as important so we will hold onto it longer. (p. 198) We also see that music tends to run in families, but they haven't found any genetic markers for this. Instead, we find that  "a child with parents who are musicians is more likely to receive encouragement for her early musical leanings than a child in a nonmusical household, and siblings of that musically raised child are likely to receive similar levels of support. By analogy, parents who speak French are likely to raise children who speak French, and parent who do not are unlikely to do so. We can say that speaking French 'runs in families,' but I don't know anyone who would claim that speaking French is genetic" (p. 200) The early support, exposure & encouragement you give your child matters a lot in their eventual musical success, because you are helping them encode the skills they're learning as important. In this chapter Levitin also looks at the practice habits of conservatory students, and among those, "the most successful were found to have practiced the most, sometimes twice as much as those who were not judged as good" (p. 196) We know that practice is important, but it is the most important marker of success, even at the highest levels of musicianship. But what about talent? Well Levitin argues that "practice is the cause of achievement, not merely something correlated with it. It further suggests that talent is a label we're using in a circular fashion: When we say that someone is talented, we think we mean that they have some innate predisposition to excel, but in the end, we only apply the term retrospectively, after they have made significant achievements." (p. 197) For us, this means that encouraging your piano kid to establish regular practice routines is going to be the biggest indicator of success, alongside exposure to music in the home, encouragement from their family & opportunities to play music that they will enjoy coming to the piano. All of these work together to signal to the brain that music is worth learning and remembering.

"Music lessons teach us to listen better"

So those are my big take-aways from this book. If you are interested in reading about any of the studies the author conducted or referenced in drawing this conclusions, I would definitely encourage you to grab a copy. There was so many interesting facts that I found it difficult to choose just a few to focus on for this post - and its still one of the longer blog posts I've done in quite a while! In conclusion, I am going to leave us with one final thought from our author about who is making music in our culture: "The chasm between musical experts and everyday musicians that has grown so wide in our culture makes people feel discouraged, and for some reason this is uniquely so with music. Even though most of us can't play basketball like Shaquille O'Neal, or cook like Julia Child, we can still enjoy playing a friendly backyard game of hoops, or cooking a holiday meal for our friends and family. The performance chasm does seem to be cultural, specific to contemporary Western society. And although many people say that music lessons didn't take, cognitive neuroscientists have found otherwise in their laboratories. Even just a small exposure to music lessons as a child creates neural circuits for music processing that are enhanced & more efficient than for those who lack training. Music lessons teach us to listen better." Let's help make this chasm smaller, by being confident, well-rounded everyday musicians. You don't have to be an expert to take part in such a culturally significant past-time. Just make the music you love, and share it with others. Until next week, happy music making!  

And if you want to hear more about this book, check out the chat Shelly & I had on the Piano Parent Podcast