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Book Review: The Music Instinct by Philip Ball


Book Review: The Music Instinct by Philip Ball

The amount of factual detail and insights that Ball brings to the themes under discussion is impressive in the extreme. On just one page, in the chapter dealing with rhythm, he weaves relevant examples ranging from Gyorgy Ligeti’s composition used in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic work, Kontakte, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Chinese zither music and songs by Australian Aborigines that are accompanied by the clicking of rhythm sticks.

The Music Instinct by Philip Ball
The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It
by Philip Ball
Oxford University Press, 464 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

Symphony of the Mind

“I know only two tunes,” General Ulysses S. Grant said. “One of them is ‘Yankee Doodle,’ and the other isn’t.”

Grant was not known for a love of music during the American Civil War. It is doubtful, though, if he really had a “tin ear.” Most people can pick out a few tunes when challenged, “Yankee Doodle” included. Indeed, human beings as a species are born with musical abilities that some scholars believe are part of our biological birthright.

Scientists have yet to discover a music gene encoded in our DNA. Music, all the same, is a primal trait of our species. The noted British science writer, Philip Ball, traces the well-spring of musicality to the inner recesses of the human mind.

In his new book, The Music Instinct, Ball follows the path that music takes from the temporal lobe of the brain all way to symphony halls, rock concerts and MP 3 players. It is a path that can be traced far back into antiquity. The first known musical instrument is a flute made from a bird bone dating to 40,000 years ago. Masterpieces such as Eine kleine Nachtmusik, The 1812 Overture, “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Let it Be” stand at the pinnacle of humanity’s most deeply ingrained form of creativity. Before humans painted images of bison on cave walls or created shrines to their gods, they chanted and sang.

Music is so often called the universal language that this statement verges on the cliché. When you really think about it, music truly is something we can’t do without, as Ball declares in the subtitle of his book. The all-encompassing place of music within the complex matrix of human nature, of human beings as individuals and as members of extended social groups, is hard to overstate.

Ball maintains that “music is an inevitable product of human intelligence.” You might almost think that such a conclusion hardly needs stating. Not so. Ball wrote his book, in part, as a response to a notorious assertion by the celebrated psychologist, Steven Pinker, whose research into the evolution of human traits and abilities, notably in linguistics, led him to a less than laudatory appraisal of the role of music.

“Music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties,” Pinker declared in his 1997 book, How the Mind Works.

Pinker further contended that “compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged. Music appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once.”

Pinker’s remarks sparked a firestorm of controversy in the world of music. Ball is a devoted amateur musician, among his many accomplishments. Yet his response is less the result of being offended by Pinker than being challenged by his theories.

Ball’s own counter theory is simply stated, “Music isn’t something we as a species do by choice – it is ingrained in our auditory, cognitive and motor functions … you could not eliminate it from our cultures without changing our brains.”

In each of twelve chapters that follow, Ball explores a key feature of music to reinforce his belief in its centrality in human life. He analyzes musical notation, melody and rhythm and the means by which humans decode sound. Expanding on these themes, Ball cogently analyzes how different instruments are utilized to create the rich auditory experience that characterizes a symphony in the Western tradition or a performance of Indonesian gamelan orchestras, where drums, gongs and metal-barred xylophones are the principal instruments.

A particularly long chapter considers the effect that music has on the feelings and moods of human beings. “Music is the shorthand of emotion,” Leo Tolstoy said, but it is a subject marked by a wide divergence of opinion. A contemporary of Tolstoy, the pioneering German musicologist, Eduard Hanslick, made a contradictory assessment. “Definite feelings and emotions,” Hanslick asserted, “are unsusceptible of being embodied in music.”

For Ball, the interface of music and emotion is not a question of “if” but rather of “why?” And it is a tough one to answer, “perhaps the hardest question of all,” Ball writes, since “there is something uniquely intangible in the way music works its alchemy.”

In probing the ways that music affects our emotions, Ball basically dismisses the sad-happy, minor key-major key dichotomy that features so significantly in music appreciation courses. What sounds mournful or bizarre to people of the contemporary Western world had an entirely different effect in the past or in a geographic area unaffected by Western values. Gregorian chant, as Ball notes, did not promote sorrow among people during the Middle Ages, but rather heightened their spiritual awareness. Because some music from Java in Indonesia uses a scale and mode that sounds similar to the diatonic minor third in Western music, it is sometimes interpreted as being sad. People in Java, Ball points out, regard such music as being joyful. When musicians in Java want to connote sorrow or stress, they utilize the slendro scale, in which “foreign” musical notes are added “to create clashes of pitches that produce an anguished quality.”

Is it possible then to reach some sort of consensus on the emotional impact of music? Ball thinks so and his answer is literally “unexpected.”

Drawing upon the research of music theorists Leonard Myer and David Huron, Ball emphasizes music’s inter-twined roll of heightening and confounding expectation. This can be traced, he maintains to the primal listening sensations of human beings in remote antiquity. For an Ice Age hunter, the sound of an animal footfall could mean the difference of encountering predator or prey, of being a cave bear’s lunch or hunting a deer to feed his family. The auditory signals involved in such life or death scenarios traveled directly to the amygdala, the emotional processing center in the temporal lobe of the human brain. And that is exactly the place where sensations produced by musical notes are analyzed.

Music, Ball asserts “becomes more interesting when it is less predictable.” Composers in effect take on the role of the stalking predator, challenging our emotions by juxtaposing combinations of musical notes that sharpen “our attention, obliging us to concentrate and search for clues about what the music will do, rather than riding on a wave of tepid, blithe predictability.”

Ball lends weight to this fascinating theory by discussing a number of musical scores where “certain purposeful violations of the beat,” to quote C.P.E. Bach, were introduced to produce a dramatic or poignant effect. Chromaticism, the intentional use of “accidental” notes outside the basic scale of a composition, was the emotion-inducing device par excellence of Romantic music. Fittingly, Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf is discussed in detail here, showing how Prokofiev “throws in ‘wrong notes’ without warning, precisely because they will be jarring and shocking” in music that remains otherwise tonal.

Composers have been “toying” with our emotions in this fashion for a great deal longer than textbook histories of music usually acknowledge. Ball comments on how Josquin des Prez, one of the true pioneers of the Western musical canon, modified the cadence of his compositions in the 1400’s with extra long passages of music in the dominant chord, while his singers’ “melodic voices oscillate to and fro before finally coming to rest.” It was a deliberate attempt to induce delayed gratification and Josquin received the same kind of negative reviews later inflicted upon 20th century innovators like Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg for defying convention.

The amount of factual detail and insights that Ball brings to the themes under discussion is impressive in the extreme. On just one page, in the chapter dealing with rhythm, he weaves relevant examples ranging from Gyorgy Ligeti’s composition used in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic work, Kontakte, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Chinese zither music and songs by Australian Aborigines that are accompanied by the clicking of rhythm sticks.

Each of the chapters of The Music Instinct deals with subject matter normally handled in book-length treatment. Far from skimping on detail, Ball deploys so much erudition that readers without some prior knowledge of music theory may find parts of the book difficult to handle on the first reading. I found this especially true of the third chapter, which deals with musical notation. However, Ball and his editors have provided an accompanying web site, where readers can hear him narrate pithy summaries of each chapter, followed by QuickTime recordings of each of the musical passages referred to in the chapter and longer presentations of significant compositions.

The variety and richness of these resources complement Ball’s text, underscoring the brilliance of his observations. However, listening to these wide-ranging selections of music from across the centuries and from around the globe presents further challenges. Questions arise, often of a subjective nature, that may in fact be impossible to answer.

Listening to the spirited rendition of Edgard Varese Ionisation in comparison with a performance of a Javanese gamelan orchestra raised doubts about the nature of music in the atonal, post-Arnold Schoenberg, post-John Cage, “post-everything” world in which we live. Ionisation, like gamelan, relies on percussion instruments. Composed between 1929 and 1931, Ionisation is credited as being the first formal piece in the Western musical canon for percussion instruments alone. There are drums, cymbals, gongs, chimes, anvils, sleigh bells, cowbells, even a siren, but not a cello or violin in sight, much less in use. Ionisation is certainly impressive to witness, but it struck me more as an intellectual exercise than a musical experience. The gamelan piece, on the other hand, evoked a more organic sensation. It seemed, on repeated listening, to belong to a living cultural tradition. One could shut one’s eyes and be transported to Java rather than merely hearing an experiment in auditory sensation.

That is the sort of convention-bound reaction that can drive musical innovators to a frenzy. While being sympathetic to those who need tonality to help them keep their musical bearings, Ball warns of the danger of being prisoners of our preconceptions.

“Not all music requires the same kind of listening,” Ball wisely asserts. Contemporary music, which is “often less about sequences of notes or beats than about sculpting sounds,” should not be held accountable to rules of other schools or traditions of musical composition.
The best music is the kind that gives our minds something to work on, as well as enjoy. Such music “holds within it something of the joy of being alive and in community with others. It is partly a kind of wonder at realizing what other minds are capable of creating.”

That is precisely the reaction which one gets from spending some time in the company of Philip Ball. Whether writing about the inherent patterns of nature or the construction of Chartres Cathedral, he is the sort of scholar that used to be called a “polymath.” But linking Ball to the image of an “ivory tower” is to do an injustice to the range of his amazing mind and to his engaging quest to share a wealth of knowledge with his readers.

In some ways, The Music Instinct is Ball’s most challenging work yet. But if we are willing to adjust the range of our listening – and mental – faculties, then this book indeed is likely to open our ears to the “joy of being alive.”

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Ed Voves is a freelance writer, based in Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, the artist Anne Lloyd, and a swarm of cats who love curling up with good books. Mr. Voves graduated with a B.A. in History from LaSalle University in 1976 and a Masters in Information Science from Drexel University in 1989. After teaching for several years with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he worked in the news research department for "The Philadelphia Inquirer" and the "Philadelphia Daily News," 1985 to 2003. It was with the "Daily News," that he began his freelance writing, doing book reviews and author interviews with such notable figures as Umberto Eco, Maurice Sendak, and Peter O'Toole. For the "Inquirer," he specialized in reviews of major historical works. Following his time with the newspapers, he worked as an independent researcher for Knowledge@Wharton, the online journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the staff of the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2005 and is currently the branch manager of the Kingsessing Branch in southwest Philadelphia. In 2006, he began writing for the "California Literary Review."    History of Yoga

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