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

The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It [Kindle Edition]

Philip Ball
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)

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Product Description


--Waterstone's Books Quarterly

'an intelligent and open-minded work'

"impressively will be the rare music lover that does not come away without having learned meant interesting things" --Guardian, February 2010

"wonderful account of why music matters... one of the finest and most versatile of current nonfiction writers" --Sunday Times, February 2010

"publishing would be a far better place if popular science books were all as truly scientific in spirit as this" --The Independent, February 2010

A remarkable achievement
--Classic FM Magazine


"Ball is to be applauded for the range and aptness of the musical examples he does choose - from Albinoni to Led Zeppelin, Bach to The Sound of Music - as well as for his attention to musics outside western traditions. ... the book is impressively engaging for one so dense with detail and argument....fascinating." --The Guardian
"Using plentiful examples drawn from a refreshingly wide range of different kinds of music, from Bach to the Beatles, and from nursery rhymes to jazz. If you can read music, you will find yourself humming aloud to see what he means. If you can't....Mr Ball's facility for conveying complex facts in simple language comes to the rescue."
--The Economist
"One the finest and most versatile of current nonfiction writers.... I defy anyone to read this book without coming away better informed about why music affects us in such a profound way...His passion for music is evident on every page, and his enthusiasms (whether for gamelan or Glenn Gould) are inf

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 3290 KB
  • Print Length: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Digital (30 Nov 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B005VQGH1Y
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #79,749 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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More About the Author

Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. He worked at Nature for over 20 years, first as an editor for physical sciences (for which his brief extended from biochemistry to quantum physics and materials science) and then as a Consultant Editor. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
51 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding overview 24 May 2010
I am one of those sad people who loves music but can't play a note. But I listen to it all the time, and am fascinated by how it exerts its powerful effects on the mind. Out of all the books about it that I have read at this popular level, I would rate this one as easily the best. The fact that it is honest about what is not known, cited by one reviewer as a flaw, is to my mind one of its greatest strengths. Too many popular science books try to give the impression that everything is neatly wrapped up with a pink bow, whereas in fact the whole point of science is to explore what is still unknown. As it happens, music is currently an extremely active field of neurology and psychology, precisely for this reason.

Ball has written a number of popular science books, and I am impressed by how good the ones I've read are. Mostly I know little about his topics, but in the case of music I do happen to know a fair amount of the research, and can vouch for the fact that Ball is spot on in areas where there is a concensus (and I happen to think his revisionist approach to the contentious issue of music as an evolutionary adaptation is correct, too, which biasses me in his favour perhaps). He is as up to date with current experimental findings as it is possible to be given publishing lead times. In fact, I'm deeply envious of this man's renaissance-like ability to move into an area and understand the basics in a year or too - it just doesn't seem fair, even if the rest of us do benefit from it. But I guess that's the advantage of having a physics training - if you can understand physics, you can understand anything. And he is an editor at Nature, so I suppose he must be at the top of his game.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
"Music" as Nietzsche said,is something for the sake of which it is worthwhile to live on earth." Thus concludes Phillip Balls fascinating study into music, how it works, why it affects us and why ultimately as Ball asserts 'We cannot live without it.' The subject requires much close reading and is by no means a quick read, but music lovers will find the insight into the power of music to elicit emotional responses; stimulate I.Q. and unaccountably affect our moods, engrossing and thought provoking. As a scientist and musician Ball has a real grasp of the subject at every level, consequently some of the more esoteric aspects of music may be beyond those(like me)with no musical knowledge or ability.
The most interesting parts of the book are how music itself impacts on the human mind and spirit in ways that are little understood. Perhaps German preacher Martin Luther put it best when he stated:

"The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them... In summa, next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls thoughts, minds, hearts and spirits."

Ball's book goes some way into explaining why this should be the case. A must for all music fans.
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but flawed 1 April 2010
By Steve Mansfield VINE VOICE
It's said that a good defence lawyer should never ask a question that they don't already know the answer to.

In writing 'The Music Instinct', Philip Ball would have been well advised to follow the same advice. The book is a painstaking and detailed survey of the current state of scientific research into how the human brain processes and reacts to music: but the further he goes into the subject, the more apparent it becomes that the depths of the answer are still pretty much unfathomed, giving the book a tentative and unfinished air, more of a report on a research work in progress than the definitive exposition promised by the book jacket.

There are some speculative conclusions about the evolutionary significance of some of the brain activities that are triggered by music, and some robust repudiation of the more reductionist and dismissive approaches to music in evolutionary science. The breadth and variety of research into the subject is conveyed well, although Ball's sheer inclusivity can make certain sections of the book rather repetitive and stagnant.

Structuring the book around the main areas of musical theory (pitch, harmony, etc.) leads Ball into some convoluted cross-referencing to other sections of the book, and similar research strands are occasionally referred to more than once. The structure also tends to highlight the deficiencies of the research into some matters such as timbre, a crucial part of the musical experince that is, from Ball's summary at least, obviously still little understiood in objective terms.

Providing you are prepared to ignore the central failure of the book to deliver on its headline promise, there is, having said all that, much to be gained from 'The Music Instinct'.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars very readable overview of the subject 19 Jun 2013
By Sarah
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Much of Ball's subject matter was familiar to me but I found it satisfying to have it brought together and expounded so clearly. He rightly argues with Deryck Cooke whose attempts to find universals in such things as minor thirds evoking sadness are far too culturally specific. Ball's vision of music as the supreme human brain-conditioner and work-out is beguiling and certainly borne out in my personal experience. It is refreshing, too, to find a musicologist who is not elitist and who recognises that highly-structured western classical music, developed for performance rather than participation, is only part of the story.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars One Star
Published 2 months ago by A. Wells
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent service. A useful and clearly argued book
Excellent service. A useful and clearly argued book.
Published 2 months ago by Jo Cursley
5.0 out of 5 stars New insight into how music works
Philip Ball has an extraordinary range of musical reference. Tying this in with scientific explanation of how harmony, timbre, melody work gave me new insight. Read more
Published 2 months ago by geoffrey
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 2 months ago by Dr James Bruce
5.0 out of 5 stars Don't be put off by the title
What a fantastic book. Very, very good, except for the front cover and title. I work as a musician and it filled in many of my areas of ignorance; if you know someone who loves... Read more
Published 10 months ago by Fidelio
5.0 out of 5 stars Love the book
Fantastic read for anyone who loves music. Non-patronising, extremely interesting, broadening horizons and understanding of the subject matter. Love it.
Published 12 months ago by Anna Demkowicz-Dobrzanska
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent and comprehensive
Anyone who is even slightly familiar with Music Theory should read this book. Since music cannot be defined as a science, this book comes closest.
Published 18 months ago by Chaim
4.0 out of 5 stars Not a bedside book!
A book that is in a way helpful but a times (especially in the first half of the book) very hard going. Read more
Published on 10 Jun 2012 by Mr. EDWARD W. BADGER
4.0 out of 5 stars music book review
This book is used as a tool in a music discussion group [u3a]. I felt it needed detailed reading but the author has done a lot of research [as he should being a scientist] This is... Read more
Published on 24 April 2012 by barbara c
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing
As a lifelong lover of music of many types, from Mahler to Meatloaf, but with scant knowledge of music theory, I found this book both disappointing and frustrating. Read more
Published on 15 April 2012 by JRT
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