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This is your brain dealing with the world of books

By September 12, 2010

Enterprise columnist

I recently finished a book about music that was a real day-brightener for me. ItÕs a non-fiction best-seller from 2006 called ÒThis is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human ObsessionÓ by Daniel J. Levitin.

It answered many questions for me, including one I posed in a recent column, ÒWhy is it so hard for me, a new guitar student, to memorize songs?Ó I had resolved to learn five songs by heart on the guitar, but the project was going slowly.

Levitin explains that experienced musicians, with hands on knowledge of musical genres and styles, can anticipate what comes next in a song or a composition because they know about structure. Where I need to memorize chord-by-chord, a person with more background has an innate sense of what comes next.

This information was helpful to me, as were many things Levitin pointed out about what the ÒordinaryÓ person can do musically, even with no special talent. For example, we can hear in our heads hundreds of songs in the correct tempo. We also have a remarkable memory for timbre, the sound of the instrument or the voice that produced a piece of music.

He also said something important about foot-tapping: ÒSometimes people tap at half or twice the beat, due to different neural processing mechanisms from one person to another as well as differences in musical background, experience and interpretation of a piece.Ó

You mean, all these years, when I look around and other people are tapping differently, IÕm not necessarily getting it wrong?

What good news.

I like the way Levitin helped me shed my self-criticism to acknowledge my normal ability to take in music, especially its emotional component, and enjoy it as part of my life.

Many of the details he offered made me eager to write a column about what I was learning.

But at the same time, my tension rose as I kept bumping into LevitinÕs orchestra-sized ego. I donÕt know what heÕs like in person, but in his book, he sounds very impressed with himself.

His biography is unusual: He worked in the music business as a successful record producer, and then went back to school to get an undergraduate degree at Stanford and a doctorate at the University of Oregon. He become a neuroscientist who studies music, now on the faculty of McGill University.

Although he duly acknowledges Ñ in fact gushes Ñ over the scientific contributions of others, Levitin has a lot of good to say about himself. He makes sure we learn that he worked, studied and dined with greats; musicians such as Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell, and scientists like Francis Crick, whose attention he got by being Ñ he almost says it Ñ just so clever. I began to take breaks whenever he started going on about all the important people he knows.

In my breaks, I wondered, ÒWhy does this happen so often?Ó Someone who teaches me something, someone who seems credible Ñ in a book or in real life Ñ also has a giant ego.

I guess you have to take the bad with the good, but little things started getting under my skin. One example is LevitinÕs subtitle, ÒThe Science of a Human Obsession.Ó Why does he call music an obsession? Obsession is a powerful word. Is it accurate, or is he using it to make his subject sound more impressive?

I think the word is inaccurate. ÒObsessionÓ carries a negative connotation, the idea that we engage in music too much or too often, that individuals can ruin their lives by over-indulging, as they might with gambling or drugs.

For most people, music is a pleasure; for some, probably including Levitin, ÒpassionÓ might be the right word. But Òobsession?Ó

Then I remembered something.

Several years ago Davis resident Sally Springer and I co-authored a college guide called ÒAdmission MattersÓ (now in its second edition with a new collaborator).

One of many things I learned from publishing a book is that authors are handicapped in some of the same ways that journalists are. Newspaper writers donÕt normally compose their own headlines; book authors donÕt get to design their own book jacket.

You can end up with a photo that is dated, blurbs you donÕt like, and sometimes a title you didnÕt write, although ÒAdmission MattersÓ encountered only photo problems.

Did Levitin get to write his own subtitle, or did the publisher foist it on him? I didnÕt see the word ÒobsessionÓ anywhere in the book except on the cover. I began to suspect that LevitinÕs publisher, not satisfied with an already catchy title, made him add the ÒobsessionÓ subtitle with its sour note.

The publisher probably also chose the New York Times blurb on the cover, which says, ÒDr. Levitin is an unusually deft interpreter full of striking scientific trivia.Ó

Levitin would weep to have anything about his work called trivial.

So in the end, I found myself feeling a little sorry for Levitin, a little forgiving and, finally, grateful for a book that brought me new ideas.

Ñ Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected] Her column appears Sundays.

Marion Franck

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