Thoughts on Music and the Brain

5 min read

True story

2 Book recs

Songbook Collection


on Spotify

on iTunes

Each morning, Simba crosses the end of the driveway tail first, three feet above the invisible fence. He is set down in the grass across the road, then walks his porter on a six-foot lead towards the land trust on Davenport Ridge. He lets go, bursts around the misty meadow and quiet woods, waiting for his porter, a biped in a red shirt.

Simba, the benevolent dictator, takes his walk daily, his meals twice daily, served wet and warm.

The End


This is true story, a canine point of view. I sleep with the porter, who is the biped in a red shirt. He takes Simba across the invisible fence in this fashion to respect the training boundary when the dog has on his collar. I watch them from the piano.

Pinky, pinky, middle, pointer, thumb. Five keys: E, E, G#, B, D, Rest count of 4. REPEAT: E, E, G#, B, D, Rest count of 4.

This is the same riff on guitar, an instantly recognizable five-note intro. Plus cat call.

[Orbison’s Grrrrrrrrr or Cat call, video]

You can see the Pretty Woman in your mind if you shut your eyes. She’s walking, swaying, 44 inches from hip to toe, button-front white dress, black hat. She returns to the clothing boutique: Big mistake. Big. Huge. I have to go shopping now.

Mercy! Then, the cat call, the growl, the purr of rrrrrrrRRRRRRs.


I didn’t sleep, playing the riff in my mind. Purely in my mind. E, E, G#, B, D.  The trademark glasses, poof of black hair, motionless on stage. Everybody knows that nobody sings like Roy Orbison.*

“The pitch is purely a psychological construct, related both to the actual frequency of a particular tone and its relative position in the musical scale,” writes Daniel Levitin [ This is Your Brain on Music .]

“Key has to do with a hierarchy of importance that exists between tones in a musical piece; this hierarchy exists only in our minds, as a function of our experiences with a musical style and musical idioms, and mental schemas that all of us develop for understanding music.”

Pinky pinky. Pressing the E key twice on the piano causes the hammer to strike the string twice. The E2 note has a frequency of 82.4 hertz.

Sound waves, molecules of air vibrating at various frequencies—do not themselves have pitch,” Levitin continues. “Their motions and oscillations can be measured, but it takes a human (or animal) brain to map them to that internal quality we call pitch.” Or in this case, the note E2 from the second octave.

We perceive color in a similar way.” A mental construct, color is mapped onto the brain. What is red? The philosopher Wittgenstein asks about sending someone to shop for five red apples. What is five? What is red? What is the pitch of E2?

Red is the color of the shirt the porter is wearing.

I can ask: See the RED shirt, Simba?

He stops when he hears his name and he knows his porter from across the misty meadow. Could the dog know what the color red is? the number five or the frequency of E2?


Dogs know on average 100 words, as I read somewhere recently, and shepherds are smart. Simba might be able to distinguish the color red and number five, but then I’d have to learn how to teach him. Is it important or relevant? Not likely for a pet, but color and number are important to the artist and the musician.

I’m reading Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and finished Daniel J. Levitin’s This is your Brain on Music, the Science of a Human Obsession. The dead philosopher and contemporary neuroscientist wrote about color and pitch as psychological constructs, which challenged notions I have about language and music, especially as someone who is a musician.

It kept me awake at night thinking of music as only in my brain. And I woke this morning and caught a glimpse of the intersection of language, music, and the brain, which I tried to capture in this essay. All of it is only in your brain.

This spring I visited the Musical Instruments Museum in Phoenix and the gallery with exhibits of artists on video, with their gear, clothing, original scores, and memorabilia on display. The volleyball nationals brought me to Arizona and the museum was a highlight, where I picked up Levitin’s book and a Hal Leonard songbook of The Definitive Roy Orbison Collection. You know the kind, the outsized Piano/Vocal/Guitar collection, priced at $22.99 in the U.S. with a fly leaf biography and singles discography.

Reading about the Brain on Music while playing Orbison, had me deconstructing the melody, the guitar riffs of Oh, Pretty Woman, the Devil’s Chord or tritone in Mean Woman Blues, and lyrics. He wrote many—maybe most—of the songs, words and music, but he revived this blues song by Claude Demetrius. Here’s a one liner from the opening:

I got a woman mean as she can be;

Sometimes I think she’s almost mean as me.

Levitin explains why we love what we love in music, much of that having to do with patterns and a music schema that we have learned and absorbed since infancy. The novelty and variety of those patterns become pleasing somewhere along a continuum of simple through complex. A personal kind of sweet spot.

With Orbison, I’m learning and playing his pieces for the first time. I have a fascination for the cool phrasing and contours, his shy and quiet persona, and the anticipation, the holding back in his off-beat melodic sequences. Think of California Blue and Blue Bayou, the vocal range of the soulful Crying, the delay in, You Got it.

When you perform a piece of music, versus play it on your phone, you are recreating the sequence of notes, the dynamics, the chords. You play what you see on the page, but you are giving it your unique interpretation. When you get it, it is exquisitely pleasurable.

Both dogs, Simba and Buster, lie down by the piano. They don’t care about the color of my shirt, but their animal brains hear the molecular vibrations coming off the spruce soundboard of the Model B grand. Buster may croon and woof along with me on fast fiddle tunes because he wants to sing and be heard. Playing Orbison on piano calms them and the little yappy Buster stops shaking. Both dogs respond and know what music is.



*Everyone knows that nobody sings like Roy Orbison. Bruce Springsteen on his debt to Roy Orbison during Orbison’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

*If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Question first posed by Irish philosopher George Berkeley. Levitin answers. “Simply no—sound is a mental image created by the brain in response to vibrating molecules. Similarly, there can be no pitch without a human or animal present. A suitable measuring device can register the frequency made by the tree falling, but truly it is not a pitch unless and until it is heard.” This is your Brain on Music, the Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin.

Jul 17, 2022


About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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