Recommended Reading: This Is Your Brain On Music

“As Simon Baron-Cohen has described it, with all this sensory cross talk, the infant lives in a state of complete psychedelic splendor (without the aid of drugs).”

Our brains develop into perfect musical receivers right around the time of puberty (but we already kinda knew that). So it’s no surprise that our strongest, most formative and emotionally charged musical connections are formed when we’re teenagers. Some people appear to be content living in that teenage musical soup for the rest of their lives—from Top 40 to Oldies as time goes by. Or even though we may listen to new music, some still believe there’s nothing as good as the music from their youth (and there are believers in every generation which should be evidence enough to illustrate the utter subjectivity of this point of view but apparently it isn’t). But musical stagnation has its consequences.

Levitin explains how hearing a particular song from our past can re-create the unique and complex neural connections we made the first time we heard it creating a strong neural bond between song and a specific time/place. However this time-travel effect is lessened the more frequently we hear a song over time. In other words, the more we listen to our ‘Oldies’ over and over we effect reasre those original and unique memory mappings. Which suggests to me that if we constantly listen to new music, we get to save and savor more. A win win!

A maxim of memory theory is that unique cues are the most effective at bringing up memories; the more items or context a particular cue is associated with, the less effective it will be at bringing up a particular memory.

This personal Top 40 mentality can also limit our ability to enjoy the new and different which is rooted in our personal schemas.

In a sense, schemas are everything. They frame our understanding; they’re the system into which we place the elements and interpretations of an aesthetic object. Schemas inform our cognitive models and expectations.


Simplicity and complexity relate to familiarity, and familiarity is just another word for a schema.

What’s the cure for a limited musical schema? Repetition.

Trying to appreciate new music can be like contemplating a new friendship in that it takes time, and sometimes there is nothing you can do to speed it up. At a neural level, we need to be able to find a few landmarks in order to invoke a cognitive schema. If we hear a piece of radically new music enough times, some of that piece will eventually become encoded in our brains and we will develop landmarks.

Just listening to something which sounds strange, foreign and formless over and over allows our minds to create new schemas. Levitin also explains that this skill of reorganizing our brains—neuroplasticity—lessons as we get older but it’s never too late. The way I interpret it, we need to feed our brains new musical food for thought all the time! by listening to music we may not even initially care for or we risk turning music into nothing more than mind-numbing brain candy.

Here’s a nice Levitin quote which speaks to a big Audiophile bugaboo – the blind test:

The scientific method requires that we control all possible variations in order to be able to draw firm conclusions about the phenomenon under study. Yet such control often creates stimuli or conditions that would never be encountered in the real world, situations that are so far removed from the real world as not even to be valid. The British philosopher Alan Watts, author of The Wisdom of Insecurity, put it this way: If you want to study a river, you don’t take out a bucketful of water and stare it on shore.

I’m actually minimizing just how great this book is by pulling out these mostly self-referential nuggets but I highly recommend This Is Your Brain On Music to anyone who spends time listening to music and who feels that music is an essential part of their life.