Thursday, January 17, 2008

This is your Brain

After owning it for months, I have finally started to read This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin. I notice that it has come out in paperback already.

There are a few annoying things about this book. For one, basic concepts of music like meter and rhythm are explained ad nauseum, explanations that I generally don't need, while the scientific ideas are thrown out often entirely without explanation. "This is in your hippocampus." [Not a quote.] That sort of thing. There are virtually no illustrations except a completely unnecessary picture of a piano keyboard. There are no scientific illustrations. What a hippocampus might be we are not to know. I have to conclude that he is writing for scientists and not musicians.

For another, virtually all the musical examples are from contemporary pop music. So he is writing for scientists with only a very primitive interest in music. Alternatively, he is a scientist with only a very primitive interest in music. Choose one.

Nevertheless, there are interesting things here. Why is it that when we hear two dissimilar instruments playing in unison that we don't have any trouble keeping them separate in our brains? Or two singers? Each tone produces a unique set of overtones which create the color that is that instrument. Theoretically, they should form a single composite sound. Why don't they?

He thinks this is primarily due to minute differences in onset. I would add differences in articulation--same thing. His examples are oboe and trombone, instruments which articulate differently.

I know that when I was in my synthesizer phase, I would frequently play the same melody on multiple tracks with different patches, but I think on a synthesizer they would blend into a single sound that could not be separated, provided the tracks were precise clones of one another, something easy to do on a synthesizer. A good way to get a track to separate is to leave it in its original human played raw condition while making all the other tracks rhythmically standardized. The track with imprecise rhythm will be heard as the melody.

See. This is interesting to think about. It completely validates what I was saying about phrasing. The imprecision is what draws us in.

Another subject he discusses is why one remembers the melody and not the specific pitches. This comes right after a discussion of ratios between pitches that make up the scale. Obviously, ones awareness is focused primarily on the ratios; one remembers the ratios of a melody and has virtually no memory of the precise pitches. A melody is a specific series of ratios and rhythms. Most people have no idea if they are singing a melody in the same key or another one except as they become aware of how a note feels in their voice when they sing it. I can't imagine what further explanation is required.

I'm going to write a lot more about this as I go along. This is due to my 10 minute attention span.

This review continues here, here, here, here and here.


Unknown said...

If you want to know where the hippocampus is, there's a figure in the appendix at the end of the book. If you're not familiar with the pop music pieces mentioned, they are all available for listening on the book's website:

Dr.B said...

Don't you just hate it when the author reads your blog! One must bitch about something. I'm not very far into it so far.

Chris Baker said...


Somebody's got their personal Google Alerts setting on high.

Unfortunately he didn't use Sonny & Cher or Janis Joplin for his "primitive" examples LOL, otherwise this post would be completely different.

I keep eying the book as I pass it in stores wanting to buy it. Now I'll just have to.

Dr.B said...

Are you making fun of me? I think the answer must be yes. Once in my distant past I liked Cher quite a lot. I got over it.

Chris Baker said...

Just a tad. It's not often that I get to make Sonny & Cher references.

Please don't let it discourage you. This is interesting stuff.