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Classical Notes

Classical Notes: January 4, 2007 Archive

Music you can taste

Posted at 7:30 PM on January 4, 2007 by Alison Young

When I was young, I was unlike my peers in this way: I couldn't have music playing while I did my homework. I really wasn't that much of an oddball. I did listen to WLS in Chicago and learned all the words to the hits of the 70's, but I somehow never managed to learn how to filter out the music and concentrate on what I was doing. Music simply got the upper hand in my conscience. So if I wanted good grades, I needed to direct my full attention to studying and immerse myself in music at another time.

This past summer, cognitive psychologist and sometime musician Daniel Levitin published a book about how we perceive music. It's sort of a primer for an emerging discipline, the neuroscience of music. Called This is Your Brain on Music, it explores subjects such as why we're able, by age five, to recognize and remember songs; what makes us perceive music differently if we see it being played as opposed to just hearing it; and why music makes us feel a certain way, usually better!

Some of his discoveries have actually debunked a few of our cherished assumptions like the one that links listening to classical music to enhanced math ability. If his theory is right and there is little real connection, that might put some of those Baby Mozart CD's on the quick-sale rack.

But maybe that's not the worst thing for the longevity of classical music. The fact is that music is just something we need around. It shouldn't be something we want just so we can become better people, generally smarter or better studiers (as was definitely not the case with me.) Philosopher poet George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason, "Music is essentially useless, as life is: but both have an ideal extension which lends utility to its conditions." The enjoyment and, to a certain degree, the understanding of music is our birthright. And Dr. Levitin's work, which also points out babies can’t tell the difference between sound and other senses like smell or taste, gives us some very left-brained scientific proof of that right.

But, of course, I can't help but wonder if Dr. Levitin was more inclined to be a scientist because he listened to lots of music.

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