Your Brain on Music: Expertise Dissected


Today, we’ll be continuing our discussion of Daniel J. Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession” by looking at Chapter 7: “What Makes A Musician?”. If you ever wondered what really separates you from Bruno Mars, or one of The Beatles, this is your chance to find out.

Last time, we discussed Chapter 6, and talked about music, emotion, and the reptilian brain. We saw how music triggers emotion by violating expectations, how the cerebellum is linked to emotions, and the role the reward system plays while we listen to music.

Now let’s take a look at how people become expert musicians, and what qualities they have that the rest of us don’t.

What Makes A Musician?

When we get to the subject of expertise, “inherent talent” is a concept that we can’t seem to escape from. We use phrases like, “She was just born with it”, or, “He always had a knack”, without really understanding what it is we’re saying. But when we’re talking about talent, we really mean that some people have an ability to rapidly acquire musical skills. This often happens after being introduced to an instrument at a young age, when our brains our sponges.

“The evidence against the talent account — or rather, in favor of the view that practice makes perfect — comes from research on how much training the experts or high achievement people actually do” (p. 196).

We’ve all heard of the ten thousand hour rule, and I’m afraid to say to all you hopefuls looking for a shortcut, that it stands true to musical ability as well. There’s simply just a certain amount of diligent practice required to achieve the amount of familiarity with a craft to be deemed an “expert”.

Expertise Dissected

Levitin makes a strong point that musical expertise is not necessarily the same as technical proficiency. “So much of the research on musical expertise has looked for accomplishment in the wrong place, in the facility of fingers rather than the expressiveness of emotion”. (p. 208). That’s the end result that all musicians seek, isn’t it? A different form of communication, through emotion rather than words. But that isn’t all it takes.

“Musical memory is another aspect of musical expertise” (p. 215). Once again, memory comes into play. But this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Experts simply reserve a great deal of their memory for what is relevant to their craft. The same can be seen with experts from every field. Grandmaster chess players have hundreds of famous games memorized move for move. The result is a well of applicable knowledge to draw from.


One memory technique that all of us share with experts is called chunking. We do this every time we memorize a phone number. We don’t try to remember each single digit, but rather group them into digestible chunks. Musicians do this in several ways.

“First, they tend to encode in memory an entire chord, rather than individual notes of the chord…Second, musicians tend to encode sequences of chords, rather than isolated chords…Third, we obtain knowledge as listeners about stylistic norms, and as players about how to produce these norms” (p. 218).

It’s the act of focusing on the larger, structural pieces that make up the larger building blocks of a song, rather than each tiny step. The same could be said for novelists. Rather than working on the sentence level, they tend to conceptualize in scenes, acts, and narrative arcs.

Final Thoughts

Levitin leaves us with a few more words, signaling that it isn’t just one thing that makes an expert. “Being an expert musician thus takes many forms: dexterity at playing an instrument, emotional communication, creativity, and special mental structures for remembering music” (p. 220).

But in order to acquire these traits, perhaps more importantly, a potential expert needs to have diligence, patience, motivation, and a good bit of grit. Overnight successes are a thing of luck. If you’re serious about becoming an expert, you’ll take your fate into your own hands.

I’ll leave you with a final few inspiring words from Levitin. “All of us are expert musical listeners, able to make quite subtle determinations of what we like and don’t like, even when we’re unable to articulate the reasons why” (p. 221).

Next time, we’ll move on to Chapter 8, and discuss why exactly we like the music we like.



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