The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do without It

By Spiegelberg, Scott | Notes, September 2011 | Go to article overview

The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do without It


Spiegelberg, Scott, Notes


The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It. By Philip Ball. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. [ix, 452 p. ISBN 9780199754274. $29.95.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

Philip Ball's book follows the familiar path carved by Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (New York: Knopf, 2007) and Daniel Levitin's This is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (New York: Dutton, 2006). Aimed to a general audience, Ball, like Levitin and Sacks before him, explores the psychology behind music listening and performing. Unlike Levitin and Sacks, Philip Ball is not a psychologist, but he does have experience writing science books, including the awardwinning Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads To Another (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004). Ball also acknowledges the help of several music psychologists and music theorists, including Sacks, Aniruddh Patel, Isabelle Peretz, and David Huron. The seventeen-page bibliography also lists the large number and variety of sources that Ball consulted in researching the topic, including many research articles published as late as 2009. Thus the facts and theories that Ball offers are as current as can be expected in a published book.

The Music Instinct is divided into thirteen chapters, each with its own musical and topical title. As examples, the introduction is titled "Prelude: The Harmonious Uni - verse," and chapter 8 is titled "Pizzicato: The Colour of Music." Ball also provides a subtitle for each chapter, explaining the driving question that he attempted to answer. The question at the heart of chapter 8 is, "Why do instruments sound different, and how does that affect the music?" In answering this question, Ball defines timbre, describes its acoustic aspects, and relates theories of how we identify different music timbres. Other chapters tackle melody, rhythm, counterpoint, harmony, brain processing, emotion, style, and meaning.

The Music Instinct differs from previous music psychology texts in its heavy emphasis on music theory. Levitin includes some definitions from music theory in the first chapter of his book, but Ball infuses music theory throughout The Music Instinct, from detailed instructions on how to read music notation to discussions of Fred Lerdahl's tonal pitch space. It seems unlikely that someone who does not know music notation will absorb the lessons quickly enough to understand the many music examples included, and therefore would not really understand the concepts that Ball is illustrating with those examples. But for the interested novice who does read music comfortably, this book lays out current theories on tuning, voice leading, timbre, and rhythm. Ball continuously makes connections between these theories and recent research in perception and cognition.

An example of this melding of theory and psychology is Ball's explanation of consonance and dissonance, starting on page 165. After an overview that assumes the reader is unfamiliar with the terms, Ball quickly moves to the issue of cultural defi - nitions of dissonance versus natural laws. Musical consonance is distinguished from sensory dissonance, with an explanation of critical bands as determined by Reinier Plomp and W. J. M. Levelt (in their article "Tonal Consonance and Critical Band Width," Journal of the American Acoustical Society 38, no. 4 [October 1965]: 548-60). From there, Ball moves to David Huron's recent statistical studies of Haydn string quartets and Bach keyboard works that show how average interval spans increase as the notes get lower, to avoid sensory dissonance (David Huron, "Tonal Conso - nance Versus Tonal Fusion in Polyphonic Sonorities," Music Perception 9, no. 2 [Winter 1991]: 135-54). Not stopping there, Ball continues with a short biography of Helmholtz that introduces an explanation of his theories of sensory dissonance, concluding with graphs showing the similarity of Helmholtz's roughness calculations with the perceptual dissonance measurements of Plomp and Levelt (p. …

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