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

1 comment:

  1. One of our fellow Emmanuelites made a brilliant case for why music matters yesterday during coffee hour. He was talking with the new motet's composer, and said, "Thank you for writing that. I didn't understand the text until I heard it sung." (: