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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: