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This Is Your Brain on Music

Understanding a Human Obsession

By Daniel Levitin
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This Is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin

In This is Your Brain on Music (2006), musician and neuroscientist Dr. Daniel J. Levitin illuminates exactly what happens in the brain when people listen to rhythms, timbres and pitches, helping us understand why we’re so profoundly affected by music.

Key idea 1 of 9

When basic elements of sound combine in a meaningful way, it gives rise to music.

What is music? While some people consider classical music the only “real” music, other people are adamant devotees of Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. So, is it possible to come up with a general definition of music?

Well, yes! We can define music as a meaningful combination of specific building blocks.

As opposed to random noise, music has fundamental elements that come together to create meaningful relationships with one another.

The most important of these fundamental elements are pitch, rhythm, tempo, contour, timbre, loudness and reverberation.

Pitch answers the question “what note is that?” – it’s the only thing that changes during the first seven notes of the childrens’ song “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Rhythm involves the duration of a sequence of notes, and it is the only variance in the first seven notes of The Beach Boys’ hit “Barbara Ann.” Every note is sung at the same pitch.

Tempo is the general speed of a piece, and contour refers to the overall shape of a melody – that is, whether a note rises or falls.

Timbre concerns the tonal characteristics that distinguish one instrument from another when they are sounding the same note.

Loudness is the amount of energy an instrument creates, and reverberation involves how far away from us we perceive the sound to be, or how large the room is in which the sound occurs.

When we take all these attributes and combine them in a meaningful way, they give rise to higher-order concepts, such as melody, that form we perceive as music. We actually often think of music in terms of melody – the succession of tones we hear.

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