Recent book review – July 09

this_is_your_brain_on_music musicophilia outliers

I’ve just finished a string of music-related books that I very much enjoyed.  I can heartily recommend checking them out from your public library.  I’ve returned my copies to the LAPL system, so they’re happily waiting for the next reader.  (The LAPL holds system is incredible!  Any book in the whole Los Angeles system can be sent to your nearest LA library, for free!  Now *this* is what taxes are all about!)

The take-home messages from these books for me are:

  • Experiencing music is a whole-brain endeavor.
  • The ears are wired to multiple regions of the brain.
  • Emotional responses to music are partly hard-wired and thus similar across cultures.
  • Savant-like musical skills are the product of the brain’s extreme specialization and sometimes have a down side.  (A person might have perfect pitch, but difficulty following melody.  Another might be able to sing fluently in dozens of languages, but not be able to add simple numbers.)
  • Master musicians (and masters of anything) are a  product of their surroundings, circumstances, and luck.  Plus 10,000 hours of practice.
  • Expertise in any field requires an array of skills working together.  An IQ of 200 does not substantially increase one’s chances of winning a Nobel Prize.  Everyone over 100 or so, is “good enough”, but the Nobel Prize winner has the fortune and luck that their various, good-enough skills all work together toward the prize.
  • Music provides insight into humanity.  Practicing music provides personal insight.

Read on for brief reviews of the books.



Title: This Is Your Brain on Music
Author: Daniel J. Levitin
Source: Los Angeles Public Library
Interest: 4 stars

This is Your Brain on Music is a thoroughly readable exploration of the science of the brain as it processes melody, timbre, pitch, rhythm, meter, etc.  I very much enjoyed reading it from a professional musician’s perspective; the book’s model of the brain seems to match the model I’ve developed in my own practice.  The book posits that drumming practice is an intensely complicated exercise for the brain, that the act of drumming is driven by multiple, divergent regions of the brain, and that practice benefits from positive mood and genuine interest.

The book is filled with great information and I highly recommend this book to any music lover or professional musician with technical/scientific interest.

Note: An article on similar topics has just been published at Scientific American online here.



Title: Musicophilia
Author: Oliver Sacks
Source: Los Angeles Public Library
Interest: 3.5 stars

Musicophilia has a more technical, “doctorly” approach to the topic of music and the brain.  The book is a series of brief stories, organized into four categories (Haunted by Music, A Range of Musicality, Memory Movement and Music, and Emotion Identity and Music).  Each is a study of a particular music-related malady, often told through the perspective of a single patient, from which some general concept of the brain’s functioning in the brain is derived.  I was not immediately captured at the beginning of the book but was won over by Part II, dealing with the topics of Absolute Pitch and Musical Savants.

I particularly recommend this book if you are interested in music therapy or personally have some sort of exceptional musical ability.



Title: Outliers, The Story of Success
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Source: Gift (but available at LAPL)
Interest: 3.5 stars

The beginning of Outliers is particularly engaging.  Gladwell explains why talent matters less than circumstances.  I already believed this as the book began, and expected to be bored by the topic, but the examples are surprisingly interesting and engaging.  Gladwell explains why 40% of Canadian professional hockey players are born in January (crazy!); how being born Jewish, in 1930, to immigrant, garment-worker parents, was the key to becoming head of one of the world’s leading law firms.

For many, the book’s major lesson is the 10,000 hour rule; that it takes 10,000 hours to master anything.  I’m inspired to do a little experiment on myself and will do a follow-up blog post on 10,000 hours for me as a taiko player.

Happy reading!

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2 Responses to “Recent book review – July 09”

  1. Hey Kris, fascinating stuff indeed. I really enjoyed This is Your Brain on Music as well. It’s a very engaging book for musicians…
    Curious to know how you will calculate your 10 000 hours!
    don’t forget those odd 20 minute blocks from time to time that we obsess about patterns in our heads before sleeping… or just wake up…. or while on the toilet!

  2. kris says:

    It’s all about the toilet time. I’m writing a piece for practice pad called “Engine Room”. :)

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