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There have been few more stimulating and fascinating books in recent years about what music is, how it is made, and how we respond to it as we do, than Philip Ball’s The Music Instinct, originally published in a consultant editor for Nature magazine, Ball has previously turned his wide-ranging, straight-talking, credo-challenging attention to the invention of colour, Chartres cathedral, and a biography of water. In The Music Instinct he sets out to explore and explain, as its subtitle declares, ‘How music works and why we can’t do without it’.

That he manages to be simultaneously catholic and heretical in his almost gleeful accommodation of epoch-spanning (and often contradictory) scientific and musicological ideas, and, not least, in his enthusiastic embrace of every conceivable musical genre, are just two of the many pleasures of a book that is at pains to send the reader back to the music under discussion to listen anew.

While many of the cultures and societies created by human beings have no traditions or traces of literature or visual arts, none lack some form of music. But why musical cultures and conventions (whether inherited or cultivated) can be so variously created and consumed, and how music manages to cast such a universal spell, is explored through a meticulously dissected deconstruction of music into its component parts, and how they provoke a response in the human brain.

There’s a daunting amount of millennia-spanning science to deal with, but Ball’s forensic interrogation of the effects of music’s separate and conjoined building blocks of notes, scales, melody, harmony and much else is laid out in a clean, clear, undogmatic and often mischievously witty manner that makes even the most tightly focused details considerably easier to digest.

In attempting to be all encompassing about its subject, The Music Instinct contains much to be surprised by, to agree with, and to take against. If, ultimately, Ball fails to unpick the ‘mystery’ of music and our emotional responses to it, he goes some considerable way towards explaining why our abiding, reflex response to it is to want to make and to hear it.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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