The first thing is that this is a book expressing ideas about how the human mind processes music and how the brain is involved with that processing (not HOW the brain processes it, which no one knows), rather than a book on music. While I am not obsessed by the topic, I find the exploration of the mind and brain function fascinating. My interest was piqued when my father was taken by a brain tumor and I tried to find material on the subject. I read "Phantoms in the Brain" by V. S. Ramachandran and then some articles by others in the field who claimed the mind is simply an illusion created by brain function, that our sense of consciousness and choosing is simply false.
This has always seemed wrong to me, no matter how much of our brain function occurs without our "mind" or "consciousness" being involved in any way. Being a pianist, it has seemed to me that there is no biological necessity to play Chopin. And when I sit down at the piano, I choose what to play, how to play it, and whether to learn the piece in the first place. I was amused when I read articles by Pinker and others struggling in trying to come to terms with some evolutionary reason for music. Some simply dismiss it (I think because it is so inconvenient to their models), others try and find it a way to attract mates (as this author does), others find it an accidental use of some other evolutionarily advantageous trait even though they can't quite identify what it is or was.
So, I was glad to read this book because of my interest in the brain and mind along with my passion for music. It is indeed a very interesting book that I could not put down. Daniel Levitin is a scientist whose work involves trying to understand how the mind perceives music and how that maps into the brain. It helps that he is also a musician. He worked in a commercial rock and roll band and as a record producer. Now, I am a classical musician and have a degree in music theory, so it is unsurprising that he and I view some aspects of music differently. In fact, I found some of his descriptions a bit sloppy and more simplistic than the simplification required in communicating to the general non-musician reading public. But then again, I know nothing about the technical terminology of brain function.
Just a few examples that stopped me cold. On page 31 Levitin asserts that the way we use sharps and flats is artificially complicated. He says, "there is no reason for the system to be so complicated, but it is what we are stuck with." Well, actually, there are several great reasons that have to do with the way our music system has evolved over the past eight centuries and more. There weren't keys or chords or even scales in the beginning. As soon as things would become settled in one generation a new generation would come along and stir things up because they wanted something a bit more this or a lot more that. So, the musical system adapted to accommodate the new music.
The idea of those keys and chords Levitin refers to as features of all music are really only a few hundred years old while the notions of modulation or "changing keys" is younger yet. And as he notes, non-Western music is organized more along "melodic" and "motivic" principles than our notions of functional harmony.
Some experimental music systems have been proposed over the past couple of hundred years and they have caught on about as well as Esperanto replaced English, French, or the hundreds and thousands of other natural languages and dialects. And for similar reasons. A complicated "natural" system, even with their inconvenient irregularities, will outlast a regular and tidy "artificial" system every time.
When he was discussing "keys" around page 36, he asserts that tonal prominence is given to the stated "key" through assertion by repetition. Actually, no. It is not a simple subject, but the tonal center of a major key is asserted by the combination of perfect fifths versus the one diminished fifth on the note a half step main keynote, plus the combination of major and minor thirds plus the combination of whole and half steps. When evaluated, there are a number of places in the scale that are ambiguous, but there are unique combinations that become pointers to the key center. And this is why the minor key, which the author asserts has purely cultural status (wrong), is used by composers to connote affects with more ambiguity.
C-major and a-minor (in its natural form) use exactly the same notes. When you play a-minor in its natural form you will eventually want to get to C-major (and that is why most classical piece in the minor mode modulate first to the relative major key rather than the dominant as is done in major keys). In order to make a-minor sound like a tonal center the harmonic form has a "raised" seventh scale degree (one of those pesky accidentals Levitin dislikes) so that it is a half-step below the key center (g-sharp in a-minor instead of the g-natural the key signature would call for) in order to provide a cadence as satisfying as the normal defining cadence in the major key. But this is getting too technical, and may be why the author avoided these discussions. After all, this is a book for the general reader and one must simplify things that are sometimes difficult to simplify.
Another time he uses the argot of commercial rock music in a way that would be confusing to people trained in traditional musical grammar (what is usually called music theory). At one point, he is writing fondly of the music of Joni Mitchell and her difficulty in finding a bass player who is sympathetic to and compatible with her approach to the sound of her music. Levitin recounts a conversation with Mitchell when they talked about most bass player wanting to play the roots of the chords of her music when she didn't want them to play roots, just play something that sounds good. OK. But bass lines don't always play the root note of every chord. That would be idiotic and boring. So, they do add passing tones and other "non-harmonic" tones. The problem wasn't that the bass players were so dim as to want to play only the fundamental notes of the chord (which would be boring indeed), but that they wanted defined harmonies at each moment in the piece, but Joni views her music more linearly. She can let harmonies from one chord linger into the sound of the next chord. Mitchell hears the music going from here to there and the stuff in between is a path between the departure and arrival points, but might not be a traditional triad. OK. That is fine. It is called voice leading or counterpoint. But pop musicians usually don't study that aspect of music.
It is important to note that much of music is not really analyzable without understanding voice leading. Not everything is just chord-chord-chord outside of the freshman four part chorale writing exercises. Believe me, there is no harmonic structure that Joni Mitchell is going to create that hasn't been done before, no matter how unique or personal her "sound" or timbre as Levitin likes to call it.
Anyway, it is clear that Levitin approaches music from the point of view of pleasure and the joy of sound rather than the idea of meaning because that is much harder to define let alone map in the brain. When the author is talking about the parts of the brain that are activated when listening to music, it is all quite interesting and I enjoyed it very much. He is very enamored of the idea of schema and taps into the Chomsky model of generative grammar, a model that has had tremendous descriptive power, but has been quite lacking in explanatory power.
The author uses the idea of the subtle rhythmic and pitch changes that a Frank Sinatra or other master musician uses as creating their effects because they violate some sort of schema built into our brains. It is true that we do try to impose order on anything. We want things to fit together and will stick purposes in where there isn't one. However, the kind of subtle changes Levitin describes are called expression by musicians for a reason. Just as we emphasize words and meanings in our speech or movement by stressing something by making it earlier or later than its peers, or louder or softer, or part of a pattern that is somehow different than what one would normally expect, we also do that in music. But it is noticing a difference in relation to what is around it rather than something universal. We don't feel that a piece that is 60 beats a minute is somehow fast or slow because of our brains, we hear what is IN the piece and decide if the tempo is appropriate, too fast (dense) or too slow (not much happening). We want a certain amount of activity based on our human experience of reality. If there is a lot happening in the piece we perceive it as we would perceive an activity in real life with a lot of things happening and would feel similar emotions. But again, this is too technical.
I was also fascinated when he discussed the redundant structures in the nerves going from our ears to our brain. He talks about it having a part to play in our startle reflex. However, I also wonder if loud sounds don't cause strong enough pressure waves on our skin to cause those nerves to become involved as well and from there to the spinal column. But I don't know anything about this except from my own experience at being startled.
Just one of the many interesting observations the author makes concerns the role of talent in success. He describes a study done in which young people are rated by experts as to their talent in a given field. A longitudinal study is done and an analysis of who ended up successful shows that there is a factor much more powerful than native talent. The author points out that the most important factor in success is 10,000 hours of work in that field. This corresponds deeply to my own experience.
When young people ask me what they can do to learn to play the piano, I tell them to play five million notes. I don't care which ones. After the first million they will get bored of playing with their fists, knees, nose, or whatever and by the third million they will be taking it seriously. And I suppose it would take about 10,000 hours to play that many notes. I have also taught my children that talent is a multiplier of work. So a talent of 10 that multiplies a work effort of 1 loses out to a talent of 5 that multiplies a work effort of 100 and loses by a lot.
In any case, this is a fascinating book regardless of my slight disagreements and likely misunderstandings of what the author is saying. I am sure you will find a lot to enjoy and I recommend it with enthusiasm.