There are a lot of books out there that examine bands, particularly iconic bands like The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or the Clash. There’s also books out there that explore particular genres, from the birth of grunge to the evolution of hip-hop.
What there seems to be fewer books about is the concept of music – what it is, and why we all care so much about it. And the books that are out there tend to be aimed towards the music major demographic – those folks that study music theory and have the jargon to back it up.
Now, don’t get me wrong – my 12 years of piano lessons have served me well, and I do know the difference between a C-sharp and an E-flat (see, Ms. Amedio!). But even so, I’m not going to plod my way through a music theory textbook on a Saturday afternoon.
But I have come across one book that did a great job of exploring aspects of music and music theory, while making the writing engaging and accessible enough for any music fan. This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession is written by Daniel J. Levitin, a man who is uniquely qualified to write such a book.
Letivin started his career in the music industry, working as a session musician, sound engineer, and record producer. He then when back to school at Stanford and the University of Oregon, where he studied cognitive science. He now runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University, where he focuses on music perception and cognition.
It’s a long resume, but it allows him to explain the complex research on music and the brain, and, you know, actually make it something you would want to read.
Each chapter of the book explores a different aspect of music, from the ways in which we interpret rhythm to why certain jingles get stuck in our heads. And peppered throughout the book are anecdotes from Letivin’s time in both the music industry and the research community.
Letivin also does a good job of explaining the terminology he uses. So for all you out there who went to public schools with no music program, he’ll explain concepts like pitch, reverb, and key in a way that makes sense.
One more thing: As a rabid feminist, I do feel it is my duty to point out one problem I had with the book. In explaining why interest in new music tends to be more common in young adults, Letivin falls back on some hackneyed evolutionary biology, claiming that, in hunter-gatherer times, men used music and dancing to attract a mate . And that’s why – 5,000 years later – dudes like music more than the ladies. Yeah. I don’t have the energy to get into how many things are wrong with this analysis, but feel free to hit me up about it on twitter and I’ll rant to you in 140-character segments.
Those few pages aside, the book is a great exploration of the way your brain interprets and enjoys music. And it’s sure to give you a few stories you can use the next time you’re waiting for your favorite band to take the stage.
Fun Fact That Will Either Make You Love Or Hate This Book: One of the blurbs praising the book comes from David Byrne of Talking Heads. It is either the coolest blurb I’ve ever seen, or the most blatant name-drop I’ve ever come across.
words about sound is an occasional feature that reviews books about music.