The Music Instinct

In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker laid down the evolutionary-psychological law about music. "Music," he put it, "is auditory cheesecake." For those who avoid cheesecake, whether administered orally or aurally, he added: music is "a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest … to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once".

The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do without it by Philip Ball 464pp, The Bodley Head Ltd, £18.00 Buy The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do without it at the Guardian bookshop Understandably, some people took against this remark. Humanity accords cheesecake (and even recreational drugs) a certain respect, but to equate them with music? A universal element of human culture that is at the same time unknown in animal societies, music seems to reach to the very core of what it means to be human. The sense of communal identity in many tribal societies is built and maintained through musical activity, while the average western citizen allows music a role in his or her sense of individual identity vastly more formative than any other art form.

Those taking umbrage at Pinker's cheesecake quip fell into two opposing camps. On the side of evolutionary science, many thought he had simply failed to grasp the nettle: since it is indisputably the case that humankind in some sense needs music, there must be an evolutionary account that explains this need along the lines attempted by Darwin's theory of sexual selection. On the side of the humanities, Pinker had gone wrong in appearing to trivialise music simply because science, rather like all British governments since Thatcher, proved unable to offer a convincing explanation as to why we should value it.

Music has been understood as lying at the origins of distinctively human culture – or at the heart of our attempt at self-definition – for centuries. In the 18th century, both Condillac and Rousseau identified music, alongside language, as separating man from animal, substituting biblical legends of the fall of man with something both more secular and optimistic. Indeed, Rousseau went so far as to suggest that music's importance lay precisely in offering alienated modern man a kind of spiritual link with his less depraved ancestors. Since then, of course, Darwinian accounts of man's ascent have flourished, but it is only recently that advances in cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have suggested the possibility of providing scientific answers to the question of why the play of abstract sounds should have become something, in Philip Ball's phrase, "we can't do without".

Ball is an award-winning popular science writer. His "biography" of water stands as an exemplar among the glut of synecdochic histories of this kind, and the more recent Universe of Stone, about the cathedral at Chartres, succeeds admirably in communicating to its readers the same sense of wonder that allowed medieval minds to conjure heaven in stone and glass.

His latest book is exemplary for different reasons. While the title obviously nods in the direction of Pinker's book The Language Instinct, his method is much more modest, taking the form of a survey of current knowledge and, more importantly, its limits.

Much as in a primer in the old-fashioned sense, Ball flits between rudimentary briefings on chords, scales and sound-waves, to accounts offered by scientists, philosophers, musicologists and (for once) musicians themselves, trading narratives against each other rather than sculpting a grand one of his own. Popular songs are used to label theories: the theory that music is instrumental in group selection and survival is advanced under the banner of the New Seekers' "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing", while the "Ronettes theory" ("Be My Baby") covers the idea that adult musicality is an extension of the process of cognitive stimulation that begins with the sounds mothers (historically) and fathers (more and more) make to soothe and excite their infant offspring. The pace is kept fast throughout, with pull-out boxes to fill knowledge gaps where necessary – useful even for specialist readership: though a professional writer on music myself, I have somehow managed to get by without bothering to learn how the human ear works.

Despite its breezy tone, The Music Instinct's greatest virtue consists in conveying the impression that answers to genuine questions about music won't come to anyone in too much of a hurry. Music, after all, is something we spend time engaged in playing, listening to, studying, practising and loving. Indeed, it is the necessarily temporal structure of musical experience, and the way that musical "ideas" cannot be reduced to instantly communicable concepts, that guarantees its importance to us.

We do not love music because it exercises our brains or makes us more attractive to members of the opposite sex, but because we have lived with it since we came into being: it is entwined in our common and individual consciousness to the extent that, simply put, we would not be ourselves without it. In contemplating the mysteries of music we are also thereby contemplating the mystery of ourselves. Because of this, easy answers tend to be irrelevant. Ball, thankfully, doesn't try to provide any, but rather sends the reader back to the music a better listener.

The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do without it by Philip Ball 464pp, The Bodley Head Ltd, £18.00

Popular Posts