Philip Ball is certainly one of the greatest science writers alive. And one of the most prolific. A year after releasing the trilogy Nature's Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts, an engaging survey of why there is beauty and order in the natural world, he is back with a detailed and playful investigation of music and our various attempts to explain it in psychology, biology and physics.
This is a popular topic for scientists and science journalists to try to cover these days, but Ball's book towers above the competition with its erudition, balance and attention to detail. He does not write about his own personal experience, or any particular research specialization, but instead reviews the whole question of whether music is essential to human development or a happy offshoot of our capacity for intelligence.
All of Ball's books are marked by a deep respect for balance and the attempt to find a middle path through the thicket of extreme views.
Steven Pinker called music a "pure pleasure technology" with no real function, and Joseph Carroll defended the ennobling essentiality of the arts. Ball says both views can be defended, but they miss the point. Whether music is necessary or not, we still enjoy it first and foremost, and if it were taken away we would have different brains as a result. Music is at the very heart of what it means to be human, and we need science to help us understand this, not to explain it away, he argues.
Ball is never one to dumb down his material in search of a wider audience. Some editors tell their writers to take out anything technical - no diagrams, no musical notation - but fortunately Ball did not accept any such advice. He wants to educate us, so there are chapters teaching the rudiments of musical notation, tonality and the meaning of the cycle of fifths. If you know this stuff already you can skip ahead. If not, read these pages and you will be able to understand the simple bits of musical notation he includes to demonstrate the complementary approaches of musicologists and music psychologists in their investigations of melodic expectancy: If you hear a few notes of a tune, how sure are you about what note is going to come next?
One of Ball's best chapters is on the question of how music conveys emotion. Some commentators throughout history have claimed that music is only about music; that is, it should only be understood in musical terms, not referring to anything outside itself. And yet most listeners who love music talk about how it grabs hold of their emotions.
He reviews very carefully, with clear examples of musical notation and scientific diagrams, how composers and perceptual psychologists study the issue from different sides. He darts back and forth from the latest scientific conclusions to passages from great works to show how we will never be able to explain why a great piece of music works, or whether it will catch the popular taste. Greatness in art should never be confused with popularity, though quantitatively minded scientists sometimes err in thinking so.
"Music is a whole-brain activity," Ball writes. "You need logic and reason, and also gut instinct. You need unconscious mechanical processes for sorting pitch and classifying rhythm and metre, as well as bits of the mind that govern language and movement. … And yes, music is intellectually utilitarian: It is 'good' for the brain. But that's a happy by-product, not a justification. Music is good for the body, too, and good for culture. In short, it is, as Nietzsche said, 'something for the sake of which it is worthwhile to live on Earth.' "
Rare it is to find a book on the science of music that admits that music will always elude attempts to explain it away, that the beautiful touches our senses even if it confuses the mind. This is the most accessible, comprehensive, and provocative investigation of the science of music - and its limits - yet to be written.
Musician and philosopher David Rothenberg is the author of Thousand Mile Song and Why Birds Sing. His latest CD is One Dark Night I Left My Silent House.