Book Review - This Is Your Brain on Music


Review by Kolby Koczanowski, MTI

Daniel J. Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain On Music is a title that had been on my “to-read” list for quite some time, so when I was assigned to write a book review this was the first thing I picked up. Prior to reading this book, I had high expectations due to the great recommendations of my colleagues and solid reviews posted online. After reading this book, I am quite disappointed with the approach that Levitin took to explain the brain’s relationship with music. He did, however, accomplish a lot by drawing connections between the brain AND music, which until recently were rarely discussed in the same context.


Readers are pulled in by what should make out to be an thought provoking tale of the relationship between music and the human brain. Levitin leads with inviting words that music is an adventure that is never experienced the same way, and that one man’s Mozart is another man’s Madonna. Upon reading these lines, most people would be able to relate with the author and agree with the truth of these statements. He goes on to introduce the function of neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, and how listening to music exposes the role in satisfying our greatest urges and triggering sensory pleasure systems (can you say “click-bait” or what?!). Levitin notes that people are intimidated by jargon used in music, music theory, and cognitive theory, and that this “specialized vocabulary” is often what draws people away from attempting to learn about such concepts. He claims that music experts and scientists could do a better job of making their work accessible, which is what he attempts to do in this book when he eases readers in by explaining how he wrote this book for the general reader, not for his colleagues.


This is where I stop and ask myself - is he sure he wrote this for general readers? Writing a book that merges the topics of music, the brain, and cognitive neuroscience is no small feat, and I applaud him for doing so; however, my belief is that Levitin attempted to do way too much in this book and did not have a ‘general reader’ actually read the book before its publication. I say this because as a music therapy student, I possess knowledge of music theory jargon and have been exposed to cognitive neuroscience and the brain for the past 6 years of my education, which makes me a prepared candidate for reading and understanding the concepts presented. For the individual with little to no prior exposure to information regarding the brain, human anatomy, and cognitive neuroscience, you might find yourself frequently backtracking several pages to fully understand the point being made. That is, unless you’ve been keeping a glossary of terms by your side to refer to throughout the book.


What we find in This Is Your Brain On Music is that there is a lot of information accessible for the general reader. A lot of information. In the opening chapter, What is Music?, we are introduced to a cast of characters that reappear throughout the book, such as rhythm, tempo, harmony, melody, timbre, pitch, etc. For someone with little to no musical background, these words are most likely familiar at some level, so no issue here. But soon after, Levitin jumps into his jargon heavy delivery of trying to explain things such as the pars orbitalis with prototype theory, all while drawing on comparisons to artists such as Picasso, or scenes from a movie starring Tom Hanks.


Levitin writes with so much jargon that it is almost not enjoyable to read. On one page he will be discussing the contour of the melody in “Every Breath You Take” by the Police, then all of the sudden he is talking about the theory of functionalism and its relationship with timbre stream integration, all while providing an explanation on how axons and dendrites work in hardwiring our brains. If I’ve lost you, then I think you get my point. The writing in this book is inherently biased in his delivery of explaining these topics in ways that make sense to him. Additionally, he will refer to famous cognitive neuroscientists as if they are celebrities that we all know and use several pages to retell a personal story of an interaction he had over dinner with a fellow colleague when he was a PhD student in the 1990s. It is this type of irrelevant autobiographical material that Levitin uses to fill up multiple pages within each chapter, disrupting any type of continuity or understanding that he had established.


One of the few things that makes this book accessible to the general reader is that he “name-drops” musicians and artists like hail in a thunderstorm. Levitin uses examples of the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, Beethoven, Frank Sinatra, Mozart, and at least a hundred more artists to demonstrate his points. This is quite generous on his part considering the content of the book, but he draws on so many selections of music from various time periods and genres, that readers are likely to be introduced to unfamiliar artists at least once a chapter and potentially wonder “Who is Oscar Peterson?” and “Why does it matter that he uses octaves in the left hand?”.


Overall, the information in the book presented is without a doubt fascinating, and I loved reading about the transfer of concepts, along with comparisons of music to multiple other fields of discipline. This book is incredibly useful and intriguing for individuals with a basic knowledge and understanding of music and/or cognitive neuroscience. I recommend it to all students pursuing careers in music therapy, music education, psychology, neuroscience, and other related areas. But like I previously stated: Levitin tried to do too much. I agree with him 150% that music experts and scientists could do a better job at making this information accessible to others, especially in the field of music therapy where we constantly rely on the brain to explain a lot of what we do. But this book is far from an introductory lesson on the topics, even though Levitin’s goal was to write with general readers in mind without “oversimplifying”. Personally, I believe that he didn’t simplify the information enough and added too much autobiographical history that had nothing to do with the topic of the book. Then again, he’s the only ex-music producer with a PhD in cognitive neuroscience that has attempted to write about the subject.
Citation: Levitin, D. J. (2006). This is your brain on music: The science of human obsession. New York, NY. Dutton Adult