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Journal of No. 118


July 16th, 2014

The Music Instinct, by Philip Ball @ 02:31 pm


How Music Works And Why We Can't Do Without It

Finally. I think this is the book I wanted about music. It wasn't Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, and it wasn't The Singing Neanderthals. This is the one. (Although it's curious that Pinker's dismissive(?) comment about music being "auditory cheesecake" also appears early on in this book, which might be considered a response as well.)

It covers many different aspects of music from the basics of how brains interpret sound, harmonies, melodies, longer structures, emotion, and the analogies between language and music. Lots of accessible examples, from major works of the classical repertoire to nursery rhymes, The King and I, The Beatles and Zeppelin. And even if you can't read music, the book has a nice online site, where you can listen to the various figures in the text. And obviously the discussions in the text may give you ideas for new music to try out. I was intrigued by the description of the use of the prosody of spoken speech in Reich's Different Trains, and despite playing the Holocaust card, it's certainly an interesting experiment.

Another interesting thread that runs through much of the book is the idea that, even if you think you're 'not very musical' you probably have a ridiculous amount of musical ability in unexpected ways. It's maybe not too surprising that after hearing a short piece of melody, you can do better than chance at identifying whether certain other notes played at you either belong or don't belong to the 'key' the piece is written in. But apparently, you can do this for gamelan music, which uses not only different scales, but quite different pitch intervals from those in Western music. From listening to a half second sample of a song, you can do better than chance at assigning it to categories like rock, C&W or jazz.

Back to scales, in some ways the do-re-me-fa-sol-la-ti-do seems so natural and correct, that it's hard (for me) to imagine it not being somehow dictated by necessity. And yet it's a convention. And this book helped explain a lot of the issues around that. Probably old hat to people who have actually, you know, studied music academically, but it was eye-opening to me. I mean, we have 12 pitches in our diatonic scale. 12 slices easily. Why don't we have a heptave of six equal tone steps (with the 7th bringing us back to 'do')? Apart from sounding weird, it might be that there would be no such thing as a 'key' in that system. The hemitone steps in the standard scale provide some texture or pattern that your brain can latch on to, so that it can identify a key, and the key changes, in a song.

By the time I got to the end of the book, I had already forgotten all sorts of interesting things, so I think it will bear a rereading. I was a little surprised that Ball is 'just' a freelance writer (though also an "avid amateur musician"), because he seems so at home with all of the musical terms and all of the research. As someone with musical training, but no real knowledge of music theory or musical 'scholarship', I found it very accessible and entertaining. Being able to read music is helpful, but probably not necessary (especially if you use the website to listen to those excerpts.)
 
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Journal of No. 118