Saturday, September 08, 2007

Your Brain On Music

I just finished This Is Your Brain On Music, by Daniel J. Levitin. If you're at all interested in music and/or brains it's a fascinating read. I found a lot of concepts that I was familiar with from my cog. psy. classes in college, but it was fun seeing them applied so directly to our perception and experience of music. The book actually made me want to just sit down and really listen to music more than anything else, rather than just having it playing in the background like I usually do. But it also made me want to get back on track again with things like playing, composing, and developing my ear.

Particularly interesting to me was the information about perfect pitch. A number of studies have shown evidence that many people, even non-musicians, are able to store absolute pitch information in memory. E.g. they could be trained to recognize or sing back an assigned note that they learned. In other cases, when asked to sing a favorite popular song, they would do so in the right key without any prompting (or even awareness that they were doing so). My guess is that if we taught babies to recognize notes the way we teach them to recognize colors, a great many more people would have perfect pitch. It seems to be built into the brain, but most people just don't know how to use it or develop it. Granted, the people who seem to have it "automatically" make it seem inaccessible to the rest of us, but I think that's just a natural misinterpretation of ordinary person-to-person variability.

Another interesting concept regards what it takes to become an "expert" level musician. It seems that amount of practice time really is the biggest factor in becoming really good at something, even more so than perceived talent. Ten thousand hours is the usual amount of time you have to put in to really reach that top tier of world-class experts. And that same number seems to apply not only to music but to everything else that has been studied in this context: playing chess, figure skating, fiction writing, and more. Unfortunately, 10,000 hours is about 3 hours a day for 10 years. Sigh. But I guess that's why we're not all the best musicians in the world.

I was also amused at how well Levitin "predicted" the existence of a few years after its creation. Personalized radio stations mixing stuff you like with new recommendations to try? Yep, got that. :-)

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