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With a song in our heads
am 3. Dezember 2007
When a rock musician, a sound engineer and a neuroscientist combine their talents to explain how we think about music, it promises to be interesting. When those three individuals are present in one man who also writes well, the result is compelling. With a strong scientific foundation - no little of that from his own work - from which to build, coupled with his production experience, Levitin has launched a new phase in the understanding of how the mind deals with the outside world. In the manner of colours we think we see, sounds are simply vibrations of air until our brain identifies and translates them for us. Without descending into arcane terms for either the brain or music, he skilfully guides us through the process of "music appreciation" - and why we do.
Musicians enter our lives more intimately than almost anybody else. They can inspire us, influence our lives in innumerable ways, and they are available at any time - virtually at our command. We welcome their presence even when we haven't consciously sought them out. Music is always a personal relationship, sometimes very intense, generating emotions perhaps hidden or suppressed. How can the movement of air molecules generate such reactions in us?
In answering that question, Levitin takes the reader on describes the path sound takes from its entry into the ear. Nerve impulses from sound have a number of paths open to them. Widely dispersed areas of the brain process the signals, further triggering a variety of reactions. Much new information about sounds and the brain's reaction to them has come to light in recent years. When the sound is music, the brain actually goes through mathematical calculations to register timbre, pitch and other musical elements. Familiar music activates responses in the brain's temporal lobes, working with the hippocampus to retrieve memories and formulate new, integrated ones. Areas in the brain, particularly the cerebellum, display increased activity when listening to music, far less so when hearing simple or incoherent noise. Recent studies also point out the influence of the cerebellum in emotional response, a find challenging long-held views of that part of the brain's role. Music's generation of feelings is non-specific - we don't necessarily associate it with those around us. When we do take neighbours into account, it generally enhances the feelings - so long as those folks aren't interrupting our listening.
Lest the reader think all this neuroscience is lofty, obscure and "soul destroying" analysis, take heart. Levitin introduces his book with a discussion of "what music can teach us about the brain, what the brain can teach us about music - and what both can teach us about ourselves". The range of music he uses as examples is clear indication of the breadth of his interests and research. At one point, he visits John Pierce, the founder of "psycho-acoustics" who sought the six tunes best exemplifying rock and roll. The choices are illustrative, but Pierce proved more interested in how sound was manipulated by the performers than in the songs. Although the limits of the research preclude detailed analysis of classical pieces, Levitin examines Bach's flute cantatas to explain how variations in sounds stimulate emotional reactions. Mahler's music brought innovation to the symphonic format in ways that made his compositions particularly effective in evoking listener response.
Providing a wealth of information, this book is a treasure. You needn't be a musician or a critic to gain from it. Any listener, and all of us are that irrespective of our "taste" in music, will be impressed by what is going on in our minds when hearing music we adore or which repels us. In fact, even "new" music which may not attract us on first hearing it, can become another trigger for positive emotional response. Read this book and listen to it again. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]