'The Music Instinct': Uncovering the Properties of 'Organized Sound'

Ball is more concerned with discerning general scientific laws of music than with providing a sense of how people consume music, or why we are even compelled to make music.

The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length: 464 pages
Author: Philip Ball
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-08

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.