Dr. Daniel Levitin discusses the relationship between music and the human brain in his book ‘This Is Your Brain on Music.'

Which came first – music or language? I suppose it sounds like the proverbial chicken and egg question. Psychologist Steven Pinker describes music as ‘auditory cheesecake.' To him, language evolved as an adaptive mechanism, but music is just a spandrel, a useless by-product.

But Dr. Daniel Levitin, a James McGill Professor of Psychology and Music at the McGill University, Montreal, isn't so dismissive of music. Dr. Levitin has also taught in the Departments of Music, Psychology, and Computer Science at Stanford University and the Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley.

In his book, ‘This Is Your Brain on Music,' he points to the antiquity of music and argues that music predates even agriculture. One of the oldest musical instruments discovered is a 50,000-year old bone flute, and he says percussion instruments must have been in vogue long before flutes. And if music has no ‘adaptive value', would it have lasted so long?

Music processing is distributed throughout the brain. The motor cortex, sensory cortex, auditory cortex, pre frontal cortex, visual cortex, the hippocampus, the cerebellum and the nucleus accumbens are all activated when we listen to music. To Dr. Levitin, it is as if all the different brain regions are involved in an ‘exquisite orchestration' when it comes to music.

Musical schema

Individual musical preferences are explained in terms of musical schema. Our brain picks out features that are common to similar situations and creates a framework that would help it identify such a situation in future. Dr. Levitin calls this framework a schema. So if you have listened to a lot of Carnatic music, you can relate to the music, for the music is in consonance with the musical schema that you have formed.

And if a person has listened to different types of music then he forms different schemas for different genres.

Dr. Levitin says we like music that is not too simple nor too complex. If something is easily predictable, it is too simple. When it is too complex, we find it off putting.

In other words, we like music that fits in with our schema, but we like the unexpected within this framework. He says that this preference can be plotted on a graph. The x-axis represents complexity of the music for a person. The y-axis represents his liking for the music. As the music increases in complexity, he likes it more and more, until at some point it becomes too complex for his liking and then his liking for it drops. This graph looks like an inverted ‘U'.The professor points out that we don't discuss our ‘self doubts' even with our friends. But we open up to our favourite composers. Let us take an example closer home.

Conditioned response

The naichyanusandhanam (self-deprecation) seen in kritis such as ‘Dudukugala' of Tyagaraja, makes us feel we can admit our failings to the composer. A certain intimacy develops between composer and listener.

Dr. Levitin says our rather sedate way of responding to a classical music concert is a conditioned one. Our natural tendency would be to respond in a more robust way with whoops and shouts. The reason, according to Levitin, is that it is only in the last 500 years or so that music became a ‘spectator activity.' Prior to that, music used to be a participatory activity.

In fact, anthropologist John Blacking says that music and movement were inseparable.

The chapter on the cerebellum's connection to music is particularly interesting. The cerebellum is one of the oldest parts of the brain in evolutionary terms.

It is known to be that part of the brain that guides movement. That is why those with Parkinson's disease have difficulty walking, because they have cerebellar degeneration. In his lab, Dr. Levitin got his subjects to listen to music and noise. He found strong activation in the cerebellum when they listened to music rather than noise. And more familiar the music, the stronger the activation. So what's the connection between emotional response to music and an area of the brain that is involved in movement? And why would a region of the brain that is present even in reptiles be involved in music?

The beauty of Dr. Levitin's book is that it prods us into thinking and raises several questions in the reader's mind.

Discover more at www.daniellevitin.com