Why music makes us feel the way it does is on par with questions about the nature of divinity or the origin of love. In This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel Levitin sets out to answer it — an ambitious task he tackles through a range of lenses, from a digestible explanation of key technical constructs like scale, tone and timbre to compelling cross-disciplinary reflections spanning neurobiology, philosophy, cognitive psychology, memory theory, behavioral science, Gestalt psychology and more. He illuminates diverse subjects like what accounts for the diversity of musical tastes and what makes a music expert, framing music processing as a fundamental cognitive function embedded in human nature. Most impressively, however, Levitin manages to do this while preserving the without subtracting from the intuitive, intangible magic of powerful music, dissecting its elements with the rigor of a researcher while preserving its magnetism with the tenderness of a music lover.
Never ones to pass up a good ol’ fashioned erudite throw-down, we can’t resist pointing out that the book’s final chapter, The Music Instinct, may be the juciest: It’s a direct response to Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, who in a 1997 talk famously called music “auditory cheesecake” and dismissed it as evolutionarily useless, displacing demands from areas of the brain that should be handling more “important” functions like language. (Obviously, as much as we love Pinker, we think he’s dead wrong.) Levitin debunks this contention with a mighty arsenal of research across anthropology, history and cognitive science, alongside chuckle-worthy pop culture examples. (It’s safe to assume that it was musical talent, rather than any other, erm, evolutionary advantage, that helped Mick Jagger propagate his genes.)