Music is an unavoidable feature of modern life, from the pop stars that have become our contemporary totems to the annoying melody of the ice cream truck as it winds its way through your neighborhood. You are perhaps listening to music as you read columns and reviews on this website. Although Philip Ball’s Music Instinct is by no means a light or quick read, the book is a work rich with ideas about music’s place in the human experience. Concepts and arguments from a variety of literatures—ranging from anthropological research to neurological studies—are introduced and questioned in order to better understand the nature of music as an attribute of very different cultures.
Given that Ball holds a doctorate in physics from the University of Bristol, it’s not surprising to notice how much he appreciates, and is captivated by, the structural properties of musical composition. It becomes clear early on, however, that individuals with substantial musical training would have a much easier time digesting several chapters of this book. Others who lack such expertise, like me, will find some parts of Music Instinct rather difficult.
Ball begins by exploring different definitions of music. He allows us to accept “organized sound” as a shorthand definition only with a caveat: rather that situate music solely in the work of the musician, it should be conceptualized as a process that “emerges from a collaboration in which the listener too plays an active part.” To build his analysis, Ball competently pulls in different research approaches that have tried to understand why the production and consumption of music appears to be ingrained into human culture.
Today, the proliferation of iPods and music-enabled Smartphones has only augmented music’s power as a kind of mood regulator. The ability to store large amounts of music on digital players and organize them into playlists means that music can spur us to work and exercise or just help us pass the time while commuting. Ball mentions a Japanese study which even detected an association between subjects listening to their favorite tracks and lower testosterone levels. This is a bit of a departure from ancient interpretations of music’s role. As Ball reminds the reader, Plato and Aristotle believed that music was endowed with a moral power that “could either promote social harmony or, if improperly used, discord.”
I approached the book as a music-loving sociologist with an interest in cultural production and the careers of those who participate in it. I was also considering Music Instinct as a possible text for my undergraduate course on culture. In this regard, the usefulness of the book proved limited. Although I enjoyed the straightforward tone of his writing, the author quickly throws the reader into a whirlwind of information about the building blocks of music, including melody, harmony, and rhythm. It’s not until chapter eight that we are told that timbre is “arguably the most personal characteristic of music. When it comes to singing, timbre often holds the key to our preferences.” Ball is clearly more concerned with the possibility of discerning general scientific laws of music than with providing a sense of how people consume music and relate to its producers or why musicians, aside from the great composers he mentions, feel compelled to create and experiment.
Noting the ongoing fad of playing classical music for infants, Ball reviews studies that have explored the link between music and intelligence. Music’s ultimate ability to improve cognitive functioning, however, appears to be an intervening effect, a result tied to the ability of music to improve one’s mood, which thereby enhances cognition. Beyond MRI visualizations that identify how parts of the brain respond to different rhythms and melodies, he notes that music “can trigger physiological processes apparently far removed from the purely cognitive. It can, for example, affect the immune system, boosting levels of proteins that combat microbial infection.”
Clearly, Ball has undertaken a very ambitious task. He is trying to meaningfully distill the basic principles of a realm of human activity on which scientific research does not hold a very firm grasp. After spending 411 pages on this fascinating subject, he concludes that music is fundamentally “sui generis, and therefore in some respects beyond words.” That may be true, but future works will likely build on Ball’s curiosity about the capacity of music to mark the ebbs and flows of our daily lives.