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Customer Review

61 of 75 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars This is Your Brain Losing Consciousness, 17 Jun. 2008
This review is from: This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession (Hardcover)
The first section of this book is a rough guide to the structure of music. If you know music, you won't need to read it. If you don't know music, I think it'll bore you. Then we get the brain stuff: here's a flat writer trying to be entertaining, dropping in references to Sting, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and other, er, contemporary artists. There are some dull arguments - eg how are we able to categorise music so easily when pop bands like the Carpenters use distorted guitars and rock groups, like the Rolling Stones, employ a string section. Who cares?

It's also interesting who he doesn't mention: nothing on Kraftwerk, Stockhausen, very little on techno, dance music, electronica, DJ culture, blip-hop; nothing much on Indian music, next to nothing from Africa. In short he concentrates on rock dinosaurs of the seventies: Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and, of course, Sting.

Some of the writing verges on the banal, such as this: "It is also important to distinguish celebrity from expertise. The factors that contribute to celebrity could be different from, maybe wholly unrelated to, those that contribute to expertise."

There is very little in this book that opens up new vistas, or shines a light on a dark and dusty corner of music - it's all pretty obvious stuff.

Towards the end of the book we get a quick run through arguments for the importance of music in mate selection. Here's just one: "Far more women want to sleep with rock stars and athletes than marry them." Aside from being asinine (do more women want to sleep with Britney Spears than marry her?) hasn't Levitin been arguing he's talking about music, and not celebrity?

I read a great many pop science books. This has to be one of the worst. Levitin makes a fascinating subject achingly dull. His writing is trite, long-winded, dreary, boring and fatuous. And every time he mentioned Sting I wanted to throw the book across the room. I kept at it hoping it would get better. It doesn't.

I hated this book. I hated it it because it took two weeks of my life away. Finally, to the blurbs: "Endlessly stimulating" writes Oliver Sacks - he should know better; "You'll never hear music in the same way again" says Classic FM magazine.

"Music seems to have a wilful, almost evasive quality, defying simple explanation, so that the more we find out, the more there is to know. Daniel Levitin's book is an eloquent and poetic exploration of this paradox." And guess which pretentious old rock arse gave Levitin's book this high praise?
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 3 Sep 2008 11:51:46 BDT
This review is spot-on. The other reviews are the work of liars and fools.
I'm halfway through this book now and forcing myself to finish it. Dull writing, no insight, and bad taste in music, too. Wonderful Tonight as one of six songs to define rock music? Constant Sting and Police references?
Worst of all is the ingratiating, pally tone adopted at times. If people are reading the book it's because they're interested in the subject, they don't want to be patronised.

Posted on 22 Oct 2008 17:13:04 BDT
I agree. Are we really just brains on a stick? I think not. This book promises much but delivers little in the way of depth and increased understanding of how the whole complex business of music works and in so many ways. It is littered with cliched simplifications and the overall tone is awful. I gained very little insight into why I like what I do and why some types of music appeal to me. Too much of the evidence draws on a narrow band of musical style/genre: no discussion on electronic music, music without a pulse as a constituent, and much more besides. Bad writing and bad scientific method in the one volume.

Posted on 27 Nov 2008 12:15:46 GMT
The subject of this book sounds interesting - so if you don't recommend this book what can you recommend instead? I am really interested in expanding my knowledge of music in many areas so please recommend something :-)

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Dec 2008 10:29:02 GMT
Personally I would recommend Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia, the only other book I've read on this topic, though that also has received mixed reviews on Amazon. Still, it's definitely better than this tripe.

Posted on 18 Dec 2008 14:06:06 GMT
Last edited by the author on 18 Dec 2008 14:12:50 GMT
Thanks for this review, Mr Strong - I was unsure whether or not to buy this book before I read your comments. Now I definitely will. If someone as up themselves as you make yourself sound doesn't like it, it's probably excellent. Why do people like you feel the need to respond to any list of bands, songs, albums, films, or whatever by sulkily pointing out that, "Hey! The one's I like aren't here!". This is clearly a book using examples to illustrate the points and ideas it wants to convey, not a critical survey of pop music - does the fact that some of the musicians the author uses as examples happen to have been born in the 1940's really make this a poor book? And if not, why mention it, apart from your irresistible urge to bandy your own tastes in public? Just stick to wearing T-Shirts with your favourite band on them if you want to do that, and spare us the routine of declaring your own taste by sniffily pointing out what you dislike about someone else's. If this book doesn't succeed in what it sets out to do, I'd be very surprised if it's because the author uses the work of a singing Geordie ex-milkman by way of illustration.

Also, a couple of other points. If you think about it - and you obviously haven't - more women probably DO want to sleep with Britney Spears than want to marry her. And Mr Cheeseman, why does using a narrow band of musical styles necessarily negate the premise of this book? Do the points the author makes using the musical examples he chooses really fail to translate if one considers other styles instead? There's probably no reference to morris dance fiddle music either, but you don't seem to feel the need to point that out. Possibly because that's not a genre you'd choose to name-drop in order to establish your own sense of what's cool and what isn't. And by the way, "Music without a pulse as a constituent"? Unless you're talking about conceptual pieces using ambient sound, I think you'll find that everything we define as "music" has pulse as a constituent, even if it's not the obvious kind of pulse we sometimes refer to as "rhythm" - even a continuous drone has the pulse of the constituent musical tones which is clearly audible, and whilst in some music the pulse may be relatively difficult to discern, or constantly shifting, it's still there. Still, I think I know what you mean, so perhaps it's unfair of me to take you to task on that one. And Mr Beasley, your points about the style and tone of the writing, and what you consider to be a lack of "insight", obviously fall into the category of fair comment. But do you really think that the people who have said they enjoyed this book and found it worthwhile are lying? Or foolish? If so, you are very sure of your own judgement of other people's thoughts and motivations. Have you ever considered a job as a Daily Mail leader writer? Like the other reviewers, you've been upset by the author's use of an un-hip superstar as an example. But the fact of the matter is that your taste in pop music is as irrelevant to a review of a book of this kind as the authors own taste is to whether or not the examples he has chosen serve to successfully illuminate the points he is trying to make. Let it go!

Anyway, just thought I'd get that off my chest.....

In reply to an earlier post on 1 May 2009 19:26:21 BDT
H. R. Mills says:
Thank you Graham, you've saved me the irksome task of responding to this review!

I've been reading this book and recommending it to everyone I know who is interested in music. Even as I read it, I was thinking that there would be some sad poseurs out there who would complain about the un-cool names that Levitin dropped - without for a moment recognising that these are just examples of the circles he walks in and the music he likes...

Posted on 8 Sep 2009 19:39:24 BDT
D. Abbott says:
I do not agree with Mr Strong's analysis of this book. It is true that the book is not an easy read in places - but then I'm a musician, not a psychologist or a nuroscientist so I expected that! The arguments towards the end of the book are in fact a small part of a balanced examination of a number of differing hypotheses regarding music and evolution. I also do not recall seeing any reference to Kraftwerk, Stockhausen, but the book does use examples from a very wide spectrum of music artists and genres and I would have been astonished to find every composers name there - wouldn't you?

Posted on 1 Oct 2009 13:28:37 BDT
Enthusiast says:
I would like to say this review is grossly unfair to a splendid and scholarly book. Unfortunately, I can't. It's all true.

Posted on 3 Oct 2011 20:58:32 BDT
A Stinging but accurate review.
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