The Music Instinct – Philip Ball

It says it’s going to say how music works and why we can’t do without it. And it doesn’t.

Well, it does the first one pretty competently. I’ve read a few books that contain a basic introduction to music theory (cycle of fifths, Pythagorean comma, modes, equal temperament, diatonic this, chromatic that etc.) and this does it as well as any of them, ie I got bored and realised I hadn’t really read it when he started referring back to it. Not that that matters much, because it’s all the same stuff.

Then he goes on to discuss the bits of the brain that we use to listen to music (all of them, in various orders; don’t think this was a strong point, although This is Your Brain on Music was written by a neurologist, so understandable that that would be better) and then the better bits: how does music elicit emotion, what are musical styles, is music a language and what does music mean?

Although there’s not a lot of conclusion to those chapters – probably summed up best by a Beethoven anecdote: when asked what his third symphony meant, he sat down at a piano and started playing it. Music doesn’t really translate into written language, even if it does share some of the features (syntax/semantics; although generally speaking you can only say “this is a syntactically correct piece of music”) so…

EDIT: I meant to add a little bit about prescriptivist vs descriptivist grammar here, because I got to thinking about it where Ball quotes some dude called Tagg says that some of the phrases in “Fernando” by Abba have a “meaning” that belies the lyrical intent. It’s like when someone says “I don’t think that words means what I think you think it means” and someone else says “je suis francais, it means what it means”: it’s just not the same language.

Elvis Costello said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but it is possible to write fascinatingly and well about the experience of music (Alex Ross), just not so much about how it works. I think the only solution is to listen with guidance to a lot more stuff.

See also: This is your brain on music – self-link! I feel dirty!

BBC’s coverage of The Proms – intelligent and passionate people talking about what’s in the music. Although, of course, they might be wrong…


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