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Classified as Music/Popular Science, this 150-page book by an Italian science journalist should be appreciated by anyone interested in the connections between music, the brain and evolution. Equally, anyone who has enjoyed Oliver Sacks’ case-histories of neurological disorders will find much of interest here.

In the first chapter, Bencivelli briefly deals with various testimonies and music theories from the ancient Greeks to the 19th-century writings of Leopardi, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Chapter Two covers the science of our ‘auditory apparatus’ – what actually happens when it receives a sound. Chapter Three is entitled ‘Studying the Musical Brain’. Unsurprisingly, the author applies a rigorous scientific approach to all theories and conclusions.

Babies are excellent subjects for experiments testing responses to music, because they lack preconceptions and conditioning education. In Part Two the author examines babies’ musical preferences and those of primates, as well as discussing such phenomena as whale songs. Does music have an evolutionary purpose? Some answers to this fascinating question may be found in the usefulness of lullabies and the importance of music therapy (see Chapter Nine). Can music reduce our perception of pain, or is it simply a welcome distraction?

I found several surprises. Scriabin was not the first composer to combine music, colours and smells: In Part Three we read of Louis-Bertrand Castel’s mid-18th-century clavecin oculaire, and the 19th- century perfumer Septimus Piesse. Bencivelli tells us that as many as five people in every hundred have the condition amusia from birth – ie they are unable to hear music as anything other than a series of juxtaposed sounds, incapable of recognising whether one pitch is higher than another. This condition was first described by Rameau in connection with one of his pupils.

References to a Schubert Fantasy ‘in D major’ and Schumann’s use of ‘surgery’ (it was actually just a wooden device) to improve finger independence are mystifying but, nonetheless, this book is valuable, engaging and very recommendable.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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