September 28, 2006

This Is Your Brain On Music

The boss just handed me an article called 'This Is Your Brain On Music'. It's about a new book by neuroscientist Daniel Levitin.

The book "explains why music is a critical step in human evolution and why the songs we loved as teens remain stuck on "play" in our heads."

To summarise the article:
  • our brains are super amazing at interpreting and recognising music, and there's not a computer in the world that can match them
  • music activates a response in the cerebellum, which is evolutionarily one of the oldest parts of the brain, called by some the reptilian brain. "Its main purpose is to coordinate the movement and timing of our bodies, and not, scientists believed, anything more sophisticated, such as the experience of emotions."
  • "The cerebellum attempts to predict where beats will occur. Music sounds exciting when our brains guess the right beat, but a song becomes really interesting when it violates the expectation in some surprising way -- what Levitin calls 'a sort of musical joke that we're all in on.'"
  • We remember music we listen to as teenagers because our brains are in a highly developmental stage, after which they become much more static. I don't know if I agree with this one. Science is science, but most of the music I listen to is stuff that I've discovered since I was 21 or 22, or even more recently - the White Stripes, Calexico, the Dears, Elliott Smith, the Decemberists and the Phoenix Foundation to name just a few. I suppose there could be an argument that what I listened to in my formative years set me up to like these artists. Amongst my peers, I was always more interested in discovering and pursuing new musical interests, even though local radio in Wanganui offered very slim pickings! Also, I was and am lucky to have switched-on older siblings.
    And I wonder what it means that some of the bands I couldn't get enough of when I was 15, I can't bring myself to go near now? Nirvana and Pearl Jam come to mind. I have a strange but undeniable resistance to this music, even though I remember really enjoying it back in the day. Baffling!
  • Ohrwurm, or earworms - songs that get stuck in your head. ".. All we really know is that musicians and people with obsessive compulsive disorder are more prone to getting earworms, and that for most people it's small bits of songs, rather than entire songs, that keep repeating." Ah, yet more proof of my somewhat latent OCD condition. I wonder if there's some relation to the near-constant compulsion to borrow song lyrics to describe my emotions?
  • Levitin offers several reasons as to why humans' musical ability is so advanced. Making and listening to music is a social activity, improving cohesion among members of the species - eg songs around the campfire act to keep people awake, ward off predators, and develop social coordination and cooperation within the group. Levitin suggests that music also acts as a precursor to speech, and he doesn't leave out the important connection to love, arousal and mating. Oh good.
So interesting! I wonder if I actually need to read the book now, though?!

Syndicated from my journal.

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Blogger Jaik said...

That was a very interesting article you just summed up. It's theory I hadn't heard before. I've never been a big music listener. I guess that what's wrong with me.

I agree with you on finding new music. There are a few songs from when I was a teenager but I find I am more into stuff that more recent. Like in the last couple of years recent.

4:38 AM  
Blogger Jessie said...

Hey Jaik, thanks for the comment. I do like to appear semi-literate from time to time.

5:25 AM  
Blogger g_pi said...

This was a very cool article -- I read it on Salon -- but I love how you summarized it. I'm like, oh yeah -- now I understand! Like you, though, I was forced to stop and think for a second. But besides having an enduring love for all things Throwing Muses and Kristin Hersh-like, I really don't listen to anything from my teenage years. I'm obsessed with finding new sounds, and have been from the get-go. But, like you say, maybe what we listened to then, makes us love what we love now. (I have this hopeless weak spot for anything 80s, for example, which means I'm a total sucker for pretentious bands like Interpol, The Bravery, The Organ, etc.)

Incidentally, I "discovered" the band The Veils the other day. And after thinking jeez, this sounds like Nick Cave's younger brother, I was moved to do a google search. And discovered they're kiwis. That was fun.

12:24 AM  

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