Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Music Instinct

The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can’t Do Without It.
Philip Ball (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Oddly enough, I can tell you exactly how long I’ve been waiting for this book: in 1997, when Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works came out, I was struck by his dismissal of music as “auditory cheesecake,” and his suggestion that “music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.” This seemed a deliberate slur, or at best, an error, but I’d have been hard put to prove it in Pinker’s terms.

Philip Ball’s The Music Instinct is a beautifully thorough response, (beginning with the title, presumably a reference to Pinker’s 1994 The Language Instinct). Music is part of our culture, he says, because it is part of our brains: “It might be genetically hard-wired, or it might not. Either way we can’t suppress it, let alone meaningfully talk of taking it away.” Music, like art and language, is an area where culture takes off from instinct, both making use of our intellectual capacity and irrevocably shaping that capacity. Moreover, Ball does not neglect to note, it enriches our social and emotional lives beyond measure.

He begins with a wide-ranging survey of the social uses of music, examining some hypotheses from ethnomusicology and related fields, gently skewering various just-so stories about the origins of music, (“Again, contemporary parallels offer themselves with treacherous alacrity:...”) while appreciating what grains of truth they may contain. Apparently, there’s nothing you could say about what music is, and how people use it, that you couldn’t also find exceptions to; but that simply points out how significant and universal the subject is.

Ball proceeds to the fascinating business of how “nature and culture interact to produce the diverse palettes of notes that most traditions draw on in creating their sonic art.” The biology of the ear and brain; the physics of the octave and the fifth; and the difference between Pythagorean tunings and the harmonic series are presented clearly but in enough detail to make sense of what follows, as Ball moves on to the musical implications of these matters.

Implications, of course, are what it’s all about. Whether we think of ourselves as musically sophisticated or not, music works on us by setting up expectations in our minds. There seems to be a sweet spot between predictability and chaos within which music is maximally interesting; it tickles our taste for ambiguity and suspense, but generally also offers resolution. As Ball says, “Experiencing music is an active affair, no matter how idly we are listening. If it wasn’t, we would not be hearing music at all.”

The Music Instinct covers a lot of ground. Ball delves into MRI studies of the brain as well as anthropological evidence; his musical examples include African drumming and the Rolling Stones as well as Mahler and Mozart. But he does not neglect the meat of music theory in the European tradition, exploring the inventive journeys through harmonic space made by composers like Chopin, much of whose art lies in inventive modulations. The cognitive psychologists are hard at work figuring out just how our brains map such matters, but it’s certain that they do, or try to.

The vagaries of rhythm receive in-depth study as well. Ball endears himself to me particularly with this note, about the famous syncopated note in the theme of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’: “The emotional effect of this rhythmic hiccup, with its early entry of the theme, is very clear: many people say it induces a thrill. (There must be something wrong with me -- I just find it irritating.)” I was sure I wasn’t the only one to feel that way.

The book would be incomplete without consideration of emotional content and meaning in music, elusive as these turn out to be. At least, certainty about them is elusive; yet the various ambiguities and uncertainties Ball encounters are not faults or errors; they are part and parcel of the entire enterprise, in all its untranslatable, irreducible glory. “In the end we need to allow music to be music, with its own set of emotions and sensations that we have yet to name and perhaps do not need to.”

No doubt there is more research left to do, especially on the cognitive science front, but The Music Instinct delivers what it promises. It is full of questions worth asking, and answers worth hearing.

May 1, 2011

Saturday, April 2, 2011


Wallace Shawn (2009, Haymarket Books)

Wallace Shawn describes himself as divided; the table of contents of his volume of essays seems to confirm it. Under “Part One: Reality,” we find such titles as “After the Destruction of the World Trade Center,” “The Invasion of Iraq is Moments Away,” and “Up to Our Necks in War, ” a not-quite-unrelievedly grim portrait of the blindness of American exceptionalism. “Part Two, Dream World” takes up Shawn’s career as a playwright, and his experiences of theater and poetry.

On the face of it, the political essays from the Reality side have more bite, but they turn out to be deeply and usefully informed by Shawn’s theatrical experience. His awareness of how many other people he could be, given the right lines to say, and how many characters and characteristics his subconscious can disgorge, has led him, he says, “to a certain skepticism, a certain detachment, when people in my vicinity are reviling the evil and alien Other, because I feel that very easily I could become that Other, and so could the reviler.”

So you rather have to pity Shawn his awareness, in 2003, of the inexorable preparations for making war on Iraq, on both the military and propaganda fronts. He knows well that “the boys are going to be fighting this war with money from my taxes, and they’re going to bring me back the prize--my own life. Yes, I’m involved, to put it mildly.” When he calls out “the obvious truth that Bush and his colleagues are exhilarated and thrilled by the thought of war,” he’s not saying that those men are uniquely blood-thirsty by nature: any of us is capable of violence and cruelty, if conditions are right. But he can’t help seeing that those who brought that war about were possessed by an alarming sense of purpose and righteousness, which made it seem downright impolite to talk about all the lives that would be wrecked by war.

Shawn is compelled to talk about the people in the world whose lives are made harder by our lives being made easier, though as he says, he went through the first forty years of his comfortable, liberal life without that awareness. “When one hasn’t noticed that it’s one’s own boot that’s standing on the suffering person’s neck, one can be calmly sympathetic to the suffering person and hope that over time things will work out well for them.”

The path he hews for himself out of this ambivalent position is the hope that, through art, some forces besides power and aggression are at work in the world. “Beauty really is more enjoyable than power. A poem really is more enjoyable than an empire, because a poem doesn’t hate you. The defense of privilege, the center of our lives for such a long time, is grim, exhausting. We’re exhausted from holding on to things, exhausted from trying not to see those unobtrusive people we’re kicking away, whose suffering is actually unbearable to us.”

Shawn presents, as essays, interviews with the poet Mark Strand and the political philosopher Noam Chomsky. In a way, this marks the extreme of his divided nature, but it may also be the way that nature comes together. “Somehow poetry and the search for a more just order on earth are not contradictory, and rational thought and dreams are not contradictory, and there may be something necessary, as well as ridiculous, in the odd activity of racing back and forth on the bridge between reality and the world of dreams.”

Serious thinking, good writing. Recommended.

April 2011 email edition