Music Matters

Exploring music and the mind.

How Does the Musical Mind Work?

A new book from Philip Ball

The title of the newest and fourteenth book by science writer Philip Ball leaves no doubt: this is a counter-attack on claims made by Steven Pinker in his publications The Language Instinct (1994) and How the Mind Works (1997). Pinker characterised music as ‘auditory cheesecake’: a tasty bonus but, from an evolutionary point of view, no more than a by-product of much more important mental functions such as language (‘music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged’). In his books, Pinker also frequently reduces art to what – biologically speaking – is an irrelevant phenomenon, one that utilises functions that can be called ‘evolutionarily adaptive’, such as the experience of pleasure. The provocation these claims represented some fifteen years ago continues to resonate: countless books referring to Pinker have appeared since (among which The Art Instinct, The Belief Instinct and The Pleasure Instinct). And now, not entirely unexpectedly, here’s The Music Instinct. The aim is clear.

And so this book begins with a discussion of the importance of music, the possible role of music in evolution and the claim that music is not a luxury. It’s a topical discussion currently being pursued in numerous scientific journals and at symposia.

However, in The Music Instinct, Ball adopts a position that in fact declares the whole discussion a non-issue: music simply is (‘It might be genetically hard-wired, or it might not. Either way, we can’t suppress it, let alone meaningfully talk of taking it away’). This is an unfortunate and — given the book’s title — unusual strategy because there really is something to be said about the other views without dismissing them as irrelevant.

Nevertheless, I can only say how wholeheartedly I agree with Ball’s interpretation of the recent literature. I’m impressed by how easily a relative outsider — Ball has written nearly twenty books on topics related mostly to physics — has managed to grasp such a relatively new discipline as music cognition.

Ball passionately defends a number of very clear hypotheses, among which those that say music is more than just sound (‘Music does not somehow emerge from acoustic physics’), that it fundamentally differs from language (‘There is no language of music’) and that musicality is much more widespread than is commonly thought (‘Most of us are musical experts without knowing it’). These are insights each in their own right which only recently have been given an empirical basis and which offer alternative visions to the older, largely psycho-physically oriented research into the psychology of music.

On the whole, The Music Instinct is a convincing book. Ball clearly has a passion for music, as reflected in his detailed and often highly personal descriptions of his numerous music samples, taken primarily from the classical repertoire. But it remains regrettable that he places so much emphasis on the first half of the sub-title of the book — the architecture and effect of music — and thus focuses mainly on the music-theoretical aspects of music. The result is that much of what there is to be said today about the second half of the sub-title — the biological significance of music and why we can’t do without it — is neglected.

(For the complete review, see here.)

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Henkjan Honing, Ph.D., is Professor in Music Cognition at the University of Amsterdam.

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