Music, Language and the Brain is a well-researched and comprehensively presented comparison of the ways in which humans process music and language in the brain. Patel presents his information in an entertaining and informative manner. The book consists of seven chapters, the first an introduction and the remaining six an examination of characteristics music and language share. These include pitch and timbre, rhythm, melody, syntax, meaning and evolution. These chapters are then further subdivided (and sub-subdivided); examples of some of these subdivisions include sections specifically about music or language, or sections comparing the two. As someone who has always enjoyed both language and music, I found the book an engrossing but difficult read.
This subdivision of chapters makes the massive amount of information Patel presents more digestible, as does his style. Dense but not weighted down in jargon, Patel does an admirable job of condensing his research into the simplest terms possible, making the complex cognitive systems used to process language and music possible for a laymen to understand. Breaking down language and music into multiple shared components allowed for more effective contrast and a more effective explanation of both music and language alone - the understanding afforded of the specific components led to a better understanding of how both systems functioned in their entireties. Within the chapters themselves, the subdivision of chapters into a description of music, language, and then "key links," which Patel describes as "areas in which direct comparisons are proving fruitful" provides an effect overview of the topic.
For the remainder of the review, I'll be focusing on my favorite chapter (the one on melody) because I think it displays both the strengths and weaknesses of the book well. Melody is a difficult concept to define - to many people, including me, the term is intuitive more than anything else - but Patel does an excellent job of providing his own definition ("an organized sequence of pitches that conveys a rich variety of information to a listener"), and then goes on to explain the significant points of his definition and why he believes they are important. In this case, the two most important points in this definition are the fact that "melodies are tone sequences that pack a large informational punch" and that "a tone sequence qualifies as a melody by virtue of the rich mental patterns it engenders in the listener." Compared to the dictionary definitions he also provides, Patel's definition is much closer to my intuitive understanding of the term memory.
Most of the chapter is devoted to melody in music, for obvious reasons - melody in music is easily and immediately identifiable, and there are often more variations in musical melody than there is linguistic melody. (The sentence "[i]f a musical melody is "a group of tones in love with each other" (Shaheen, quoted in Hast et. al, 1999), then a linguistic melody is a group of tones that work together to get a job done" is a typical example of Patel's excellent synthesis of his own work with his research, expressed with clarity and wit.) After a description of melody in both music and language, he defines his key links as melodic statistics and melodic contour, emphasizing his point by including the fact that "quantitative differences emerge between the music of two nations that reflect linguistic differences." He also describes amusia ("deficits in musical perception and/or production abilities following brain damage that are not simply due to hearing loss or some other peripheral auditory disorder") and tone deafness ("severe problems with music perception and production that cannot be attributed to hearing loss, lack of exposure to music, or any obvious nonmusical social or cognitive impairments"). To further emphasize the connection between melody in speech and melody in music, he cites a study that states that people suffering from amusia were unable to recognize not only tones in music but also emphasis in speech, indicating that "intonation and tone-sequence processing overlap in the brain."
The remaining chapters all follow this general template effectively and informatively: music and language apart, key links, and sometimes a description of a relevant disease such as tone deafness in the chapter on melody or aphasia in the chapter on syntax to further elaborate on the processing of music and language in the brain.
When I think of melody, however, I know that I personally think most often of a melody that's sung - a song, rather than a piece of music. Including music with lyrics could have been a fascinating connection of both language and music, a bit of a missed opportunity, I think (although it is hard to fault Patel for the research he didn't do when he did do so much). There are only two pages on song in this book where I imagine it could be the subject of a separate book on its own, which was a bit of a disappointment for me. Similarly, the inclusion of something like poetry or even dramatic language - a speech, political or otherwise, rather than everyday language, could have provided a more in-depth comparison. This is, however, addressed in his introduction, where he says "[c]omparing ordinary language to instrumental music forces us to search for the hidden connections that unify obviously different phenomena." Maybe the inclusion of poetry and music with lyrics rather than instrumental music could be the next step? The only other complaint I have is that Patel could have included more about the way the brain processes music and language; a more in-depth description of these processes would have helped me personally. These problems are not confined solely to the chapter on melody, either - they hold true throughout the book; Patel focuses more on linguistics and acoustics rather than neuroscience.
These are admittedly fairly minor quibbles, though, and Patel recognizes and addresses many of them. Many academics have read and enjoyed this book, including Oliver Sacks and reviewers at Nature, Nature Neuroscience, and Language and Cognition have read and enjoyed this book, but it is just as accessible for students as it is Ph.D's, thanks to Patel's writing. It is not an easy read, but it is well worth the time and effort. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in language, music, or the brain, regardless of level of expertise.