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After decades of relative neglect, music has become one of the burgeoning growth areas in recent neuroscientific and psychological research. If nothing else, the 600 pages of this invaluable Oxford Handbook – which attempts to offer a compact snapshot of the daunting breadth and depth of a field that is less than a generation old – suggests that there is a lot of catching up to do.

First published in hardback in 2008 and now appearing in paperback for the first time, it is an admirable attempt to distil into thumbnail digests an incomparably complex subject that goes to the very heart of how we organise, process and respond to both the creation and consumption of music, and why it seems so important to us. To say the least, it is ambitious in both scale and scope.

More than 50 experts in the field from around the globe have been corralled together by a team of three editors to offer a collective precis of research to date and current conclusions and theories. Particularly fascinating are the discussions dealing with the fiercely contested and highly combustible ‘interface between the biological and cultural’, which inject valuable new insights into the perennial nature/nurture debate.

Sections dealing with the impact of technology and how it has profoundly changed our relationship with music; our understanding of the basic perceptual and cognitive processes in the brain as its ‘listens’ to music; and the relationship between music and language and how that manifests itself in different musical practices in different cultures, all add to the value of a book that aspires to be the ‘comprehensive reference text in the field’.

Although academic and scholarly in tone, and clearly not written with the layman in mind, there is much here, with concentrated reading, to make one think afresh about the how, the what, and the why of making and listening to music. Teachers, especially, will find much of interest and use here, as will anyone with a fascination for trying to understand why the human brain seems so drawn to music, and how our sense of ourselves and the world around us is shaped by our engagement with it.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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