This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin: A Review

by Molly Harrell, MTI

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Who is this book for?

A compelling merger of neuroscience and music, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession is a comprehensive account of music and all of its aspects, the brain and many of its processes, and how music directly affects the brain. Levitin writes in a way that is thorough and precise, but makes it approachable to readers of all backgrounds.

While loaded with terminology and detailed descriptions, there is no prerequisite knowledge of music or the anatomy of the brain required in order to enjoy this book.


Who is Daniel J. Levitin?

The writer himself comes from a background of both science and art. Originally a college dropout, Levitin joined a rock band and toured the country making music, then worked in music production before coming back to school to search for answers to his infinite questions about music and the brain.

He wondered things like: why do some songs move us when others don’t? Why does music seem to come more easily to some and what is the role of perception in that?

Levitin eventually ended up at Stanford University and studied cognitive neuroscience, his passion driving his research to topics relating to music and cognition. At the time of the book’s publishing, he was running the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University and much of his research is included in this book as well.

Even though This Is Your Brain on Music was published in 2007, it still contains many interesting ideas that have been researched even further since.


What information is covered in this book?

Levitin formats his book as such:

  • Background information about himself
  • Musical aspects described in detail (melody, harmony, timbre, tempo, and rhythm)
  • How the brain processes sounds
  • What we anticipate in music
  • How neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin are released
  • Music and memory
  • Biological aspects of what makes a musician
  • Music preference and the brain

Levitin is very thorough and his writing includes a wide array of topics, supported by research – a lot of which he has done himself.

What I loved about This is Your Brain on Music

The most fascinating parts about this novel, in my opinion, are about how the brain perceives different aspects of music, and which parts of the brain are involved in various music-related processes.

For example, Levitin describes the way music moves through the brain as it is listened to.

First, subcortical structures (brain stem, cochlear nuclei, and cerebellum) respond to the sound and then it moves to the auditory cortices to be processed.

If the music is a song you know, the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory) will get involved, as well as parts of the frontal lobe.

If you are tapping your foot or clapping your hands to the beat of the music, your cerebellum is activated.

Playing an instrument, singing, or conducting uses the frontal lobes, as that is responsible for planning and the motor and sensory-related areas of the brain.

Reading music means you are using your visual cortex and recalling lyrics involves using language centers of the brain.

If you experience an emotional response to music, the amygdala, responsible for processing emotions, is involved (p. 86).

This is a lot of information to process all at once, isn’t it? Even just reading this back, my brain is working hard to understand the intricately involved process that is occurring even now as I listen to jazzy study music while I write this. How incredible it is that so much is occurring in our brains during what looks like a completely passive act such as listening to music!

Because this is a lot of information to digest, Levitin includes a couple simple ‘maps’ to better understand all of these functions in the brain: (p. 270-71).

Music and Neuroplasticity

Other fascinating tidbits of knowledge that I gleaned from this book are as follows.

First, “the processing centers for important mental functions actually move to other regions after trauma or brain damage” (p. 87).

This is something that fascinates me because I’ve learned recently that it has been researched in relevance to stroke patients. Because parts of the brain are damaged after stroke, rehabilitation requires re-learning some skills that were stored in the affected areas of the brain.

Music therapy is used as part of this rehabilitation, and if we learn anything from this book, it’s that music is processed in multiple parts of the brain, meaning that music has the ability to be effective in stimulating various parts of the brain, allowing for the remaining healthy parts of the brain to be involved in music-related tasks, strengthening the neural connections that are still there.

This function of the brain and its ability to re-organize itself is known as neuroplasticity (p. 87).

Mirror Neurons

Something else that I found interesting is that our brains have mirror neurons, which are “neurons that fire both when performing an action and when observing someone else performing that action” (p. 266).

Scientists have tested this as a theory and proved that, for example, when people listened to or watched someone eat an apple, their own neurons in the mouth movement area were activated. This is the brain’s way to “train and prepare the organism to make movements that it has not made before” (p. 266).

In Conclusion

While somewhat dense and absolutely chock-full of information, this novel is great for anyone that’s interested in learning more about music’s effect on the brain. In the world of music therapy, I especially recommend it for anyone that is interested in Neurologic Music Therapy, as this could be a great introductory book!

For more information about the brain and a review of another recommended book, head on over to this other blog post by two of Heart & Harmony’s fantastic music therapists!

Molly Harrell, MTI


Levitin, D. (2007). This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Penguin Books Ltd.

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