Thursday, March 29, 2007

Your Brain on Music

I have finally finished reading, and would like to strongly recommend, Daniel J. Levitin's book "This Is Your Brain on Music." The website for this book has fascinating musical examples. The beginning chapters of the book offer the most entertaining, efficient, and engaging explanations of music's essential elements (such as pitch, timbre, rhythym, loudness, anticipation, etc.) that I have ever seen. I also particularly liked chapters 6 and 9, on emotion and instinct.

Levitin's research has studied the involvement of more 'primitive' parts of the brain, like the cerebellum, in music comprehension and generation. In this vein the recent report by Wong et al. in Nature Neuroscience, showing that musical training can change brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch, is of interest. Here is their abstract:
Music and speech are very cognitively demanding auditory phenomena generally attributed to cortical rather than subcortical circuitry. We examined brainstem encoding of linguistic pitch and found that musicians show more robust and faithful encoding compared with nonmusicians. These results not only implicate a common subcortical manifestation for two presumed cortical functions, but also a possible reciprocity of corticofugal speech and music tuning, providing neurophysiological explanations for musicians' higher language-learning ability.

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