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Book Review

"This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession"

by Daniel J. Levitin (2007).

Reviewed by Alice Fedorenko

This book deals with the complex science of music, and attempts to explain how music affects our brains, minds, thoughts, and spirit. Music is an organized sound that engages nearly every region of the brain and nearly every neural subsystem we know of. In fact, music uses brain structures and neural circuits that other activities do not. Music—far more than language—taps into the primitive reptilian region of the brain involved in motivation, reward, and emotion.

The auditory system of the fetus is fully functional at about 20 weeks after conception, so that even a fetus can hear music at several months before birth. Still, the developing brain requires months or years to reach full auditory processing capacity. By the age of two, children start to show preference for the music of their culture, and by the age of about 10 most children show real interest in music. By the age of 18 to 20, most people have formed their taste in music.

Music is widespread in the human species, and musical rhythms have moved humans both emotionally and physically throughout ages. Some scientists believe that music is an evolutionary by-product of language development, capable of stimulating important parts of the brain in a highly pleasurable way. Others believe that music plays an evolutionary role in courtship displays—used mainly by males to attract females (interest in music peaks during adolescence). Another argument is that music may strengthen social bonding among humans. In Western culture in particular, adolescents tend to form social groups based in part on similar clothing, shared activities, and similar listening music.

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Music may help prepare the developing infant for language and for mental life ahead. Music listening and music therapy have been shown to help people overcome a broad range of psychological and physical problems. Music can alter our moods and activate memory traces of earlier emotional moments in our lives. The extreme popularity of rock and popular music in the last forty years has been generated by a sense of vulnerability and surrender that we experience. Artists such as the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and the Beatles "play" with our emotions: lift us up, bring us down, comfort us, inspire us.

Our great attraction to recorded music—as evidenced by the current popularity of personal music players and headphones—is driven by the new technologies and special effects created by recording engineers. These masters can create "hyperrealitites" on the sound track that "tickle" our brains. This is similar to the special effects we enjoy from watching 3-D art, motion pictures, and visual illusions. These manufactured extraordinary sensory impressions are absent from the real world, and hence stimulate our neural circuits in totally new ways which are highly interesting and stimulating to us.

Loudness is one of the key elements of music. Loudness is measured in decibels (dB) and is based on a logarithmic scale. The ratio between the loudest sound that we can hear—without causing permanent damage to our hearing—and the softest sound we can detect (as measured as sound-pressure levels in the air), is a million to one. On the dB scale this is 120 dB. The threshold of pain and damage to the ear occurs at 126-130 dB (where 126 dB is four times as loud as 120 dB). Many people enjoy really loud music and speak of experiencing a sense of "thrill and excitement" when the loudness exceeds 115 dB. The reason for this "high" is unclear, but it may be related to saturation of the auditory system causing neurons to fire at their maximum rate. Still, some people like loud music, and some do not.

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