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Friday, January 7, 2011

Review: The Music Instinct by Philip Ball

It is at once mundane and yet remarkable how much one's impression of the world is influenced by what one focuses on. In college, I was taught traditional eurocentric classical music theory. Though some exceptional professors had broader perspectives, it seemed they were still resigned to the primacy of the conservative traditions. Not wanting to be an ignorant critic, I made a conscious effort to understand and appreciate the traditional views. Later, I did the same with guitar pedagogy: reading through all the classical literature to understand that perspective. I learned a lot and valued some of the ideas, but I felt small and alone in my persistent interests in music cognition, ethnomusicology, and other less-classical approaches.

More recently, I began seeking out more cutting edge contemporary research. At first, I had little guidance because most of my professional acquaintances have only superficial awareness of the questions that interest me. But then one connection led to another, and I was soon overwhelmed with books, journal articles, conferences, websites, music, and names. It seems I wasn't so alone after all. Now I feel as though I am just one of a vast number, possibly even a majority, of younger researchers and teachers who are fully engaged and open to the broad perspectives on music that are available in the 21st century. It now seems to me that everyone acknowledges the validity of all the world's musics, appreciates the insights of cognitive neuroscience, and is interested in the whole complicated discourse of various perspectives. But, is this impression just a result of with whom and with what I am now surrounding myself? I think the reality is somewhere in the middle.

Philip Ball's new book The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It presents an impressive overview of the current issues in music scholarship, balancing respect and awareness of both classical perspectives and the important questions of global and scientific insights. Reading it, I felt very humbled. How can this popular science writer (who is not a career musician and who has covered a wide range of subjects from art to physics to biology) be so knowledgeable about all these music issues that took me years of study to understand? He even seems to possess a thoughtful perspective on evaluating it all.

Ball starts off with an introduction that beautifully addresses the concerns that I and others have dealt with in today's world of music. It emphasizes the inherent musicality of cognitive music listening skills over the Western emphasis on performance and note-reading. He addresses the concerns that ethnomusicologists have about attempts to understand music universally. He deals with the philosophical questions of music's significance to humanity.

Ball's book, along with other recent popular titles like This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel Levitin and Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, is another sign that the zeitgeist is shifting. The questions I have been asking for a long while are now mainstream. (Incidentally, I was excited to see Ball using the same music/cooking analogy which I developed independently). As I read further, however, I found that The Music Instinct is a mixed attempt, still hampered by some of the older assumptions and terminology. The Western art music tradition is foremost, balanced mostly by reference to Western popular music. Ball understands and explicitly states that non-Western music traditions are as rich, but he knows less about them and so offers little in that direction aside from some minor mentions. While his attitude is commendable, his compilation of a wide range of subjects is a jumble of blocks that struggle to cohere into a greater whole.

The main value of this book is its up-to-date overview of many of the interesting subjects at the forefront of musicology today. I see it as a signpost in the exciting progression of our understanding of music. It does not get all the way to the destination that is in sight — a place where understanding of music will be comprehensive, better organized, and liberated from cultural or historical bias.

The Music Instinct fails to justify the subtitle of "why we can't do without it." Even the known benefits of music, such as making repetitive work more fun and tolerable, are not addressed here. My own consciousness was raised by the remarkable movie Sound and Fury. In one scene, some members of the deaf community, happy — even proud — in their deafness, dismiss the supposed importance of music. I think, in fact, we can do without music, though I, for one, certainly prefer having it. And I enjoy understanding music enough to appreciate Philip Ball's compendium of issues in musicology despite his imperfect organization. I'm just not quite sure to whom I could recommend the book. It is too difficult a read for any true novice, not optimal for teaching music appreciation or theory, and not in-depth enough for serious academics (I was particularly frustrated that he mentions studies sometimes without any identifying title or citation). Perhaps the best fit is someone like me: already aware of many of these issues but interested in reading different perspectives.

Read on for more content summary and further discussion:

The Music Instinct companion website contains excellent general introductions to the ideas of each chapter, both in written text and audio with reading of the same. There are also lousy unmusical MIDI files for the book’s notated figures along with YouTube links for some of the mentioned music. In my summaries below, I will not explain or introduce the topics but will list and critique the content so that potential readers may understand what this book actually covers.

After the introductory two chapters, Chapter Three covers psychoacoustics, basics of Western theory jargon, notation, tuning, scales, modes, keys, harmonics, and more. This unfortunate chapter, full of esoteric details, is probably enough to stop some lay readers from continuing further. Too much is crammed in here including the full mathematical basis of temperaments. The important concepts are the uneven step-size in most scales, complex tones having multiple partials (often in a harmonic series in musical tones), and the general idea that perception is more important than physical measurement.

Ball attacks the dogmatic assumptions of mathematical theorists (those claiming that music must match simplistic ideas like precise tuning ratios), but he then goes too far and dismisses any significance of tuning. It is easy to tear down the straw men who claim that there is one "correct" tuning system or who grossly exaggerate the significance of minuscule tuning details. But Ball falls into the tired fallacy (typical of pianists like Ball) of mostly ignoring the continuous and complex nature of pitch in many (if not most) musical contexts. He fails to adequately address the preponderance of approximately harmonic intervals in much of the world's musics. He also makes the bad decision to use the term "overtone" in discussing harmonic partials, thereby making the numbers unnecessarily confusing, as if the subjects of Chapter Three were not already complex and opaque enough. This chapter inundates the reader with complex ideas which are then declared irrelevant —not a great way to make music understanding more widely accessible. Thankfully, the rest of the book does a somewhat better job.

Chapter Four covers melody: contour, tonality, phrases, patterns... Basically, this summarizes content from relevant sections of David Huron's superb book Sweet Anticipation (a source utilized throughout much of The Music Instinct, with varying degree of acknowledged credit). Emphasis is on statistics about pitch classes, statistical learning of tonal systems, phrase arches, preponderance of small steps, and other related ideas. The chapter ends with an introduction to atonal serialism, which is mostly decried as cognitively difficult but still given fair treatment and perspective.

Chapter Five is on Gestalt grouping as applied to music. A simple history of Western polyphony is included along with general discussion of texture and auditory streaming. The otherwise excellent introduction to these ideas is presented with a bias which treats music generally as being as rigid and definite as Western notation implies.

Chapter Six includes sensory roughness (here Ball is somewhat less rejecting of tuning significance compared with Chapter Three), Western harmony basics, cadences, implied harmony, key changes, chord inversions, and mappings of key relationships. Though decent and more progressive than some descriptions, this section may still turn away the general public who are (rightfully) skeptical of all this jargon and abstraction.

Chapter Seven on rhythm is shorter than I initially expected, partly because some related subjects (such as syncopation) are oddly deferred until later chapters. Topics here include regular pulse, meter, binary divisions common in Western music, additive rhythms common in non-Western music, poetic feet (as per The Rhythmic Structure of Music by Cooper & Meyer), shifting accents (as in Stravinsky's Rite of Spring), morphing rhythm in minimalism, and non-rhythmic flow of sound in ambient and experimental works. The simplistic definition of rhythm here is "the actual pattern of note events and their duration" — a definition which fails to live up to the general theme of the book: that cognitive experience is where music exists.

Unfortunately, his examples demonstrating poetic feet are actually incorrect (he shows iambic words and claims that they are trochees). His explanation of elision is also erroneous. He then mentions America from West Side Story in a general discussion of note patterns that do not align with metric accents; but this would be better for describing hemiola, and he should have acknowledged the fact that America is not rhythmically unique but is a actually caricature of cliche Spanish/Latin rhythms.

On a positive note, Ball succinctly clarifies how performance rhythm varies from strict notation, how folk musicians (such as blues guitarists) even add extra beats or measures without explicit awareness — and to no musical detriment. This shows, of course, how misguided are the strict notation transcriptions of folk and popular musics that are often published. The chapter ends with a welcome mention of Snowball the cockatoo (who has been scientifically tested to prove that humans are not alone in feeling the beat of music — technically called "beat induction").

Chapter Eight is on timbre. The general description is alright, though he fails to mention localization among the sound parameters that timbre does not include. Then there is discussion of orchestration and of how timbre is a major defining component of style. Next, Ball concedes that timbre is hard to understand, so he apologizes for the overly brief cursory chapter and moves on.

Chapter Nine is a brief intro to the cognitive neuroscience of music. First there is a quick debunking of the so-called "Mozart Effect." A short introduction to brain anatomy leads into discussion about disorders relating to music followed by references to various notable studies in music psychology. The basic theme is: music involves the whole brain in complex ways.

Chapter Ten on music and emotion is among the most in-depth sections of the book. Included are anecdotes of listening experiences; discussion of general expression of the distinct basic emotions like happiness, sadness, anger, and fear; the difference between expression and induction of emotion; the complex subjective nature of emotion; philosophical questions such as music and agency; cross-cultural perspectives; learned associations; and more. The lengthy second part of the chapter delves into the idea of emotion driven by expectation and surprise, particularly as Leonard Meyer described in his classic book Emotion and Meaning in Music. Expectation issues are then discussed in detail with specific theoretical examples on syncopation, sequences, cadences, chromaticism, modulation, ornamentation, performance expression/interpretation, and more about tension and release.

Chapter Eleven is on style/genre. The overall excellent discussion covers topics such as originality, schematic mental representation, taste and acculturation, computer/algorithmic music designed to mimic certain styles, and current approaches to music categorization like Pandora's Music Genome Project. Ball nicely points out that interest in music is often driven by deviation, and that music necessarily evolves and changes. A side column discusses the unfortunate disregard for listener response at the height of the technical and abstract serialist movement in the mid-20th century. There is a nice clear discussion on how the most preferred music is in the middle of the simple-to-complex spectrum and so achieves a balance between originality and accessibility.

Chapter Twelve relates music to language in terms of syntax and other issues. A fair critique of Schenkerian analysis points out how limited it is to Western music of a certain time period. There is also discussion and modest critique of Lerdahl and Jackendoff's now-classic book A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Lastly, there is a short mention of neurological testing of expectation and surprise.

Chapter Thirteen tackles the issue of meaning in music. Can music refer to something beyond itself? Ball says no, aside from explicitly learned codes. He has a harsh critique for the New Musicologists who read specific narratives into purely instrumental music. Instead, Ball suggests (and I agree), that music stands on its own with connections to cognitive mechanisms, vague and entirely subjective associations, mimicry of emotion in spoken language, and all the other complex issues described throughout the book. With such rich and multifaceted an art, there is no need to treat it as having mundane narratives or references that could be expressed in words.

NOTE: Although I've linked to Amazon.com for some of the titles mentioned and am happy if you purchase books there (I will get a modest credit for the referral), I encourage readers to utilize the public library system.


  1. I'd have liked to get hold of these books, but someone they always disappear from the library shelves... And very often, yes, they are full of irrelevant jargon.

    I think one interesting approach I would like to take on is to debunk theories or concepts by using inconsistency to disprove.

    You may also may want to have a look at an idea of "syntactic harmony." I think most people agree to the general idea, but for most of such people, it is a loose belief.

    Cheers, mate, let's march on!

  2. Wong:
    Perhaps your library doesn't work as well as those here, but maybe also you are just being pessimistic. All these books are available through my state's library system, and I've been able to reliably get them. Michigan has an inter-library system that sends books between different libraries around the state easily with no fees.

    To be clear: the jargon in "The Music Instinct" is not irrelevant, just unfortunate. The jargon is the correct jargon mainly, but being jargon means it can reach only a smaller audience.

  3. As in, the books seems to be continually on loan! That is all.

    And I know a lot of the jargon is not irrelevant, but the introduction of new terms make such books a pain to read. But every theorist will come up with their own set of terms, so we have a problem there.

  4. Continually loaned books might have been discouraging 15 years ago, but today I just log in to the library website, put myself on the waiting list, and then I get an e-mail in a few weeks or so when a copy is on hold for me... I've got enough other things to do, I don't need everything to be available immediately.

  5. Reviving an old blog post, I know, but I've just been struck by a series of coincidences and thought you might find it funny too.

    I first came across one of your videos about your microtonal keyboard back in 2011, while idly looking at things to do with procedurally generated music. I'd recently (only a few months earlier) started singing in a barbershop chorus, but had no idea of your connection to barbershop at that stage.

    Then about a week ago, I found the videos of the woodshedding class you gave, but didn't realise the connection to the video I'd seen before!

    Inspired by woodshedding (it doesn't seem to be a big part of barbershop in the UK, though I think its potential for building core skills is huge, and it looks like fun all on its own), I found your blog and finally made the connection between the two sets of videos.

    To top it all off, I came across this post - reviewing a book within easy reach of where I'm sitting, currently on loan from the library :)