Books: Your Brain on Music

I am reading lots of books about music at the moment. It is becoming a bit of an obsession. I read Eric Clapton’s autobio [bleuh] and followed that up with Bob Dylan’s [wow]. I might review them in the future and explain my asides. For now I am reading Oliver Sack‘s Musicophilia and last month I read This is your brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin. There is too much information in this book to write just one post about it. So this is my first. Do not hold your breath for the second. Just in case you have not noticed, science posts are sporadic around here.

The major elements that Levitin considers to make up music are pitch, timbre, key, harmony, loudness, rhythm, meter and tempo.

A discrete musical sound is usually called a tone. Tone and note typically refer to the same thing unless you are a scientist or musician when “note” refers to the thing on a score of music.

Pitch is the primary way that music can convey emotions – a single high note can trigger excitement and a single low note may trigger sadness. Different instruments have different ranges in pitch available to them. For example, the piano keys range from 27.0 hertz as its lowest note to 4186 htz at the high end. These images show the ranges for different instruments and the human voice.


musical ranges

another musical range image

Arranging pitches in particular ways leads to the formation of scales and these also can effect our moods. Major scales are happy and triumphant and minor scales are sad or defeated. Key is related to the hierarchy of importance that exists between pitches within a musical piece and harmony is the relationship between pitches being played at the same time.

The most important feature about music is timbre as it is the principal feature that separates the voices of the different instruments. Timbre is caused by presence of the overtones, which in turn are influenced by the material making up the instrument. For example, wood is less dense than metal so gives lighter overtones. I was always proud of the fact that I could do this as a child – I was especially delighted because I could tell an oboe from a clarinet, apparently difficult instruments to tell apart. Timbre also allows us to recognize the voice of a friend from that of some one unknown.


Loudness is purely a psychological construct that relates to the physical amplitude of a tone. Loudness is partly the volume and also how the dynamics change within a musical piece. Brahms, who I am singing at the moment, deliberately changes the dynamics from loud (forte) to soft (piano) from note to note to emphasize his point. He’ll build up a crescendo to forte and the next note is sung piano. Beethoven is another composer who uses contrasting dynamics in a similar way.

Rhythm refers to the durations of a series of notes and to the way they are grouped together (duplets, triplets). Tempo is the overall speed of a piece of music and meter is created by our brains by extracting information from rhythm and loudness cues, refering to ways in which tones are grouped with one another across time. For example, waltzes have meters in three and a march has a meter of either two or four.

Introduction to music and neuroscience to follow.