The Music Instinct

How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It
The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It. Oxford Univ. Sept. 2010. c.464p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 978-0-19-975427-4. $29.95. MUSIC
Polymath Ball (Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another) adds to his wide-ranging list of titles with this fascinating, densely packed discourse on ways music interacts with the human brain. Using examples from the Renaissance up to the present day, he explores elements of musical structure such as melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre with an ear to how the listener perceives the music. The writing flows well, considering the challenge of combining research by leading experimental psychologists with exponents of music's theoretical underpinnings. Ball's notion of music as a "gymnasium for the mind" exemplifies the mental activity needed to understand this art form, while its emotional appeal can be a "direct route to the core of our shared humanity." Illustrations, written musical examples, and a website for listening to them are particularly helpful. The extensive bibliography includes both classic treatises and recent articles.
VERDICT Likely to appeal to readers with a thorough grounding in the basics of music, Ball does not eschew controversy with his strong opinions.
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