Adeline and I go to a music class called Music Together. During “class” parents and their babies (of all ages) sit around a room and sing, bang on drums and other baby friendly instruments, and move their bodies and get up and dance. It’s a great time. The philosophy behind the class is that, until very recently, families and communities regularly made music together and everyone was a musician as well as a listener. These days most people don’t regularly make music and they feel that they’re not able to do so. Exposing babies to this kind of group music-making early on will give them a better chance of becoming musical as they grow.
These ideas feature prominently in the book This is Your Brain on Music. Levitin often returns to the idea that all people are capable of making music, and it is only recently that most of us have become passive listeners instead of musicians. He also focuses on the idea of movement and music as being one. In many of the world’s languages the word for “to sing” is the same as “to dance” – “there is no distinction, since it is assumed that singing involves bodily movement.” And moving in time with the music is something that all of us can do, but it’s not as easy as it looks. Levitin notes that tapping your feet in time with the music is “an activity that involves a process of meter extraction so complicated that most computers cannot do it.”
I’ve always been musical. When I was young, my grandpa would play the piano and we would all sing along. Add to that 10 years of piano lessons and 11 years of camp – a community where music making was an integral part of nearly every activity – and I’m a music-lover. I did high school musicals, humorology in college and even the law school musical. I sing and dance with Adeline all day long, both songs we know and songs I make up as we go. My next goal is to get a little upright piano so I can brush up on my (very modest) playing and play songs for her.
But I’m certainly not alone in loving music. Consider the “30-day Song Challenge” currently making the rounds on Facebook. For 30 days, the participant picks a different song every day to fit into a very specific category. As Levitin points out throughout the book, we are all experts at knowing what we like. And not just what we like, but what we like for any given mood, what makes us happy, what makes us dance, and what we definitely do not like. Music is an incredibly important part of life for many of us. In this book, Levitin tries to figure out why. His answers are fascinating.
I remember the first time I discovered “90s on 9” on XM radio. We were driving up to visit my parents, so we listened to it for hours. It was all songs from junior high and high school and I knew almost all the words. It wasn’t necessarily music I loved, but it was my music. Levitin talks about that sense of attachment to music from our teenage years. One part is that those were emotionally charged years for most of us, and we attach music to that emotion and it sticks with us. But he also describes the neuroscience behind it: that age is the time when neuron connections are finalizing and “our musical brains [are] approaching adultlike levels of completion.”
He talks further about the way that music is connected to memories. “Have you ever been walking down the street and suddenly smelled an odor that you hadn’t smelled in a long time, and that triggered a memory of some long-ago event? Or heard an old song come on the radio that instantly retrieved deeply buried memories associated with when that song was first popular? . . . [M]emories are encoded in groups of neurons that, when set to proper values and configured in a particular way, will cause a memory to be retrieved and replayed in the theater of our mind. . . . [T]he problem is finding the right cue to access the memory and properly configure our neural circuits.” This sounds like Proust by a scientist. That odor or bit of song that triggers the long-lost memory is exactly what Proust means by finding “lost time.” And his explanation of how that trigger happens is a more beautiful rendition of the “finding the right cue” explanation. Almost 100 years ago Proust knew what science has finally confirmed. And that, my friends, is just one example of his genius.
Another topic that I particularly enjoyed was his discussion of babies and music. Studies show that “a year after they are born, children recognize and prefer music they were exposed to in the womb.” How neat! I sort of knew that when pregnant, but didn’t really get around to doing the whole “play the fetus Mozart” thing. She’s going to love folk music though. More fascinating was this quote: “[A]t a very early age, babies are thought to be synesthetic, to be unable to differentiate the input from the different senses, and to experience life and the world as a sort of psychedelic union of everything sensory. Babies may see the number five as red, taste cheddar cheeses in D-flat, and smell roses in triangles.” I’ve often said that being a little baby must be like being on an intense acid trip. Looks like I was right! (Also, my sister sees colors associated with letters and words – a condition called synesthesia in adults. I guess her brain is still “baby-like” – or more positively, it never became limited in the way the rest of ours did. She’d also be happy about this quote from the cited article: “The condition, which is genetically transmitted, seems especially prevalent among highly talented and gifted persons.”)
The book is full of other really interesting discussions of music and neuroscience. I could go on and on, but this post is getting a little long. So I’m off to listen to some of my favorite music.