Recently, I have come across many references to the balance of art and science in the creation and production of music. The most inspiring and insightful Tape Op interviews in the last few issues have some of the most well-regarded studio engineers insisting that only a small percentage of their work involves their prowess in the technical realm. There's a certain amount of knob twiddling, some critical listening, a bit of mic choice and placement, and then a great deal of absolutely crucial human interactive skill-negotiating, problem solving, relaxing tensions, facilitating creative work, and trying to navigate and engage in the often unspoken language of human musical interaction.
For example, in Tape Op #70, Chris Tsangarides (Ecology Rooms, UK) states, "This job is ten percent knowing what the dials, knobs, and buttons do; the other ninety percent is being able to deal with the human beings." And in issue #68, Joe Tarsia (Sigma Sound, Philadelphia) says, "I've seen guys who knew how to work every knob but just didn't know how to relate or give a sense of confidence to the producer. If you're not able to get the customer's confidence, you're a washout."
I was also struck by an interview with producer Daniel Lanois in his recent documentary film called Here Is What Is. Sitting at the console, he talks about the art of his job, "I see mixing as a time of expression" and labels what he does "performance mixing"-taking what is often seen as technical or "science", and placing it into the realm of art. What Daniel Levitin does in his book is almost the flipside of this concept. He is taking what is often seen as art-the human creation and perception of music-and framing it in a realm that is fascinatingly technical, drawing some very direct lines between creativity and science. This book is an exploration of the mathematical, neural, and biological reasonings for humanity's unique manipulation of sound that we call music.
Levitin begins with some brilliantly explained mathematics concerning the relationships that we, as animals, perceive in pitch, timbre, rhythm, duration, and loudness. He delves into the way that our musical memories are stored and organized; the way that musicians process the motor memory used for playing instruments; and the various levels of "expertise", both on the performance and listening sides of music. He weaves seamlessly between neuroscience, genetics, psychology, cultural evolution, and plain old physics. His use of examples in walking the reader through what he is trying to express is superb-getting you to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" to understand pitch relationships or to tap your foot with Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day" to understand metric concepts. He maps out areas of the brain and considers their interactions in the complexities of musical processing, explaining all the different regions that come together for these tasks. He even gets into some discussion and expansion on Darwin's thoughts on the evolutionary role of music in the human sexual selection process (a deep and much neglected link in the reality of what we know of in our culture as the music business, I think). Along the way, he creates the most clear, fascinating, and deeply readable journey into the science of music. For me, Levitin does the most amazing job not only of explaining some really engaging human science, but also of opening up my own perception and questioning my role in this strange task of recording and creating music with-and for-other people.
In addition to his role as a music neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, the author actually played in "commercial" rock bands in the 1970s and worked as a record producer at studios in San Francisco through the '80s, and he uses all these work experiences and anecdotes as a way of getting into his insights on music creation and perception.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone involved in recording music, at whatever level, and on whatever side of the proverbial "glass". If you consider humans to be part of the equipment required for making music, then this book is a bit like having a well-written manual for that equipment. Certainly, as a reader of a magazine like Tape Op, you may want to stop and consider just why you are so obsessed with music. This book may offer a good chunk of insight into the animal that you are. A follow-up to This Is Your Brain on Music entitled The World in Six Songs was published last year, and a recent interview with Levitin will be published in an upcoming issue of Tape Op.
(Hardcover $24.95 MSRP, paperback or eBook $15.00, downloadable abridged AudioBook $29.95; www.penguin.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.