Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Best Books of 2007 - Music1

"Just in the last 20 years, there has grown up an ability to examine the living brain when people are listening to music or imagining music or composing music and to define--in a way which would have been unimaginable 30 years ago--what goes on in many different parts of the brain when one listens to music, imagines music, composes music, et cetera. Althought I was experiencing both the power of music and the varieties of musical experience 20 or 30 years ago, I couldn't have given it the scientific backing which is possible today."

--Neuroscientist Oliver Sacks in Discover magazine Dec 2007

The fruits of this neurological research in the perception of music are now coming into print. Had I finished Sacks' new book this year, it undoubtedly would have made the list, but an equally worthy book deserves mention this year: Daniel Levitin's This Is Your Brain on Music.

How do we perceive pitch? How does the cerebellum track rhythm, and why do we find a 'groove' pleasant? Why we do we tend to like the songs of our teenage years more than kids' music today? Why are some people tone deaf? These questions and many others are explored with the new science and given fascinating, if at times conjectural, answers. Levitin is a gifted writer whose encyclopedic knowledge of musical genres gives him credibility when he has to talk about touchy subjects like musical preference.

If there is a weakness to the book, it is his reliance on 'evolutionary science'. Here and there I have made reference to my doubts about evolution being a genuinely scientific theory. I will save comments for tomorrow's post. I will simply note here that we have no way to test that any human trait that 'evolved' thousands of years ago imbued us with any survival advantage. There is simply no way to test such a claim. So I find such arguments unpersuasive.

On the other hand, I have taken a real interest in the neuroscience part. I found Sacks' quote in the recent issue of Discover to mirror my own feelings with the recent spate of books and articles in this area (music therapy continues to be a growing field of psychological research). My ultimate interest is in the connection of music and morality. Trying to argue that music has moral value is often like arguing that space aliens caused human evolution. As one who holds (with almost every thinker before Kant) that music affects us morally, I find these scientific findings helpful. Scientists, after all, are not afraid to weigh in with the possible moral ramifications of other biological and psychological findings. We are regularly given moral lectures on how and when to exercise, not to smoke or eat trans fats, et cetera, and for a legitimate reason. The good of our own bodies and the good of others is affected by what we put into our bodies and our minds. Now we can see some of the results of certain types of music on the brain. This at least opens up some possibilities of giving 'scientific backing' to assertions about music's effect on the human person.

Don't avoid this book because you think that neuroscience and music theory are too cerebral. Levitin miraculously makes it all understandable and even enjoyable. A great book!

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