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How Our Minds Make Sound into Music

Peter Pesic

THE MUSIC INSTINCT: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It. Philip Ball. x + 452 pp. Oxford University Press, 2010. $29.95.

Whatever one may think of the headphones and earbuds that so many people wear while walking or exercising, we generally expect that through these devices they are listening to music, as if to draw sustenance and entertainment from it ever more continually. Whether for good or ill, whether absorbing schlock or high art, we seem to be living in a constant bath of sound, often delivered right to our eardrums. But why does music so fascinate us? Why are we so drawn to hear it and make it?

Philip Ball’s new book addresses these and other fundamental questions about music. Ball, who has a doctorate in physics and was an editor at Nature for 20 years, is a prolific freelance science writer—this is his 12th volume of nonfiction. In The Music Instinct, he writes for educated general readers, whom he expects to be drawn to music and interested in its constitutive elements. He also expects that the reader will share his keen curiosity about the scientific and philosophical aspects of music.

I was impressed by the breadth and seriousness of Ball’s book, which contains a wealth of material. He provides a feast of information on such topics as tunings and temperaments, the construction of melodies, the elements of harmony, the importance of rhythm and tone-color, and much more. In each case, he presents a careful and informative set of definitions and examples that will be accessible to readers who like music but have never learned its technical vocabulary.

Ball’s examples are impressively varied; he seems as familiar with the works of Led Zeppelin as with those of Mozart, citing passages from both in a way that will make his book interesting to fans of either. His historical range encompasses ancient Greek music, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Charles Mingus. And he doesn’t confine himself to Western music, whether serious or popular—the book is also enhanced by his use of examples from folk music and from a wide variety of musical traditions around the world. His musical examples are available as sound files on a website, so that readers can readily hear what he is talking about. Unfortunately, these recorded examples are unlovely mechanical renditions produced by a synthesizer; they convey the bare notes without any human musicality, interpretative finesse or charm.

Ball’s writing is excellent—vivid and colloquial in the best sense, intelligent and stylish without pretense. His explanations are engaging and clear; he lays out complex materials without the condescending oversimplification that is the curse of popularization. As he remarks himself, writing about music is truly difficult because it uses words to express that which goes beyond words, whether above or perhaps beneath them to some primordial, prelinguistic realm of feeling. His own writing on the subject is nicely poised and manages to navigate these shoals; he accents the perils of programmatic or descriptive explanations (whether traditional or postmodern), which so often turn out to be arbitrary, banal or just empty. I think that his clarity and avoidance of cant will encourage readers to explore and express their own reactions to music more fearlessly and directly.

Ball is deeply interested in contemporary neurological and psychophysiological approaches to music, of which he offers a very rich and diverse palette for our consideration. He explores this modern literature with imagination and thoroughness; his notes and ample bibliography are excellent resources for those who want to read the original works he cites and go further. Although he is open to these scientific avenues, he is also appropriately critical of their limitations. Ball can summarize the latest brain-scan interpretation that seems to locate some musical feature in this or that part of the brain, while he also points out to us its problems, its hidden assumptions and the questions it begs or ignores.

I especially liked Ball’s individualistic turn of mind, which is thoughtful and respectful but also clear-sighted, even in matters often obscured by a fog of received opinions. For instance, although he rightly spends a great deal of time discussing the enjoyability and emotional expressivity of music, he also observes that “music does not have to be enjoyed.” Here he not only offers a response to Steven Pinker’s notorious dictum that music is a kind of “auditory cheesecake” that merely tickles our sensoria, but also takes note of important dimensions of music that go beyond simple categories of enjoyment, namely the artful dance of musical patterns in all their intellectual and sensual variety.

Ball’s ability to think independently also helps him address the difficult philosophical question of whether music “means anything” at all and, if so, what. Wary of the common claim that music is a language, he shows the inherent difficulties of applying the category of “meaning” in a realm where it may not really apply. Music may be deeply meaningful while not having any verbally expressible meaning. At many points, Ball helpfully calls on the social context within which we hear, however solitary may be the individual act of audition or rendition. I would have welcomed even further exploration of this dimension. To what extent, for instance, can we think of musical experience as analogous to dancing with a partner, an activity in which the interactive dialogue of leading and following illuminates the roles of composer, player and listener?

In the end, I wondered whether the title The Music Instinct, with its popularizing flair, really does justice to this rather serious book, for the mantra of “instinct” tends to swallow everything and explain nothing. Ball cites the Roman philosopher Boethius’s observation in the sixth century that music “is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired.” Perhaps that deeper kind of union is what the vaguer word “instinct” is meant to indicate. Or perhaps the publisher chose the title for its marketability.

Cavils aside, Ball’s book is a treasure trove of information, explanation, questioning and thoughtful response that will delight and instruct a wide audience of intelligent, sensitive people who love music, who have perhaps felt intimidated by it, and who want to think about and love it better.

Peter Pesic, a physicist, historian, and pianist, is tutor and musician-in-residence at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is the author of Labyrinth: A Search for the Hidden Meaning of Science (2000), Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature (2002), Abel’s Proof: An Essay on the Sources and Meaning of Mathematical Unsolvability (2003), and Sky in a Bottle (2005), all published by The MIT Press.

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