This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin; Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks - review by Alexander Waugh

Alexander Waugh

Loony Tunes

This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession


Atlantic Books 320pp £17.99

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain


Picador 400pp £17.99

A few months ago I shoved my brain into a multi-million pound electro-magnetic scanner at a research hospital in Sheffield so that Professor Lawrence Parsons, a cognitive neuroscientist, could discover what was going on in my head when I was listening to and playing music. He particularly wished to know what was happening in my hippocampus – the region of the brain that is concerned with musical memory and experience. For a week he pored over the results only to prove, in the end, that I was a fake. Comparing encephalograms of my listening to music with images of my playing it, he was able to observe that the emotional part of my brain (that part which was active when I was listening) was completely shut down when I was playing. This it seems, is the same for all musicians. A good pianist may have the skill to reduce his audiences to tears, but he does not achieve this by expending any of his own emotion as he does so. During a concert he simply pulls items from his box of tricks – a clinical, clever process requiring taste and technique, but no emotion.

All this is very interesting and surprising, but is it the sort of thing upon which governments and research institutes ought to be squandering huge pots of tax-payers’ money? Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, fervently believes it is. But he would (wouldn’t he?) because he

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