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

Philip Ball
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
RRP: 10.99
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Book Description

3 Feb 2011

Why have all human cultures - today and throughout history - made music?

Why does music excite such rich emotion?

How do we make sense of musical sound?

These are questions that have, until recently, remained mysterious. Now The Music Instinct explores how the latest research in music psychology and brain science is piecing together the puzzle of how our minds understand and respond to music. Ranging from Bach fugues to nursery rhymes to heavy rock, Philip Ball interweaves philosophy, mathematics, history and neurology to reveal why music moves us in so many ways.

Without requiring any specialist knowledge, The Music Instinct will both deepen your appreciation of the music you love, and open doors to music that once seemed alien, dull or daunting, offering a passionate plea for the importance of music in education and in everyday life.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (3 Feb 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099535440
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099535447
  • Product Dimensions: 3.3 x 12.5 x 19.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 118,486 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.

Product Description


"Wonderful account of why music matters... one of the finest and most versatile of current non-fiction writers" (Sunday Times)

"Exemplary... In contemplating the mysteries of music we are also contemplating the mystery of ourselves... Ball, thankfully, doesn't try to provide any easy answers, but rather sends the reader back to the music a better listener" (Observer)

"This is a truly fascinating and eye-opening account of a phenomenon so commonplace we barely think about it, yet one which is also mind-bogglingly complicated. Once you've read The Music Instinct, you'll never listed to music the same way again" (Independent)

"A musical experience in itself...his love of the subject is abundantly evident.. His mastery of many scientific disciplines is a delight" (Daily Telegraph)

"Impressively will be the rare music lover that does not come away without having learned many interesting things" (Guardian)

Book Description

Philip Ball provides the first comprehensive, accessible guide to how music works and why it is indispensible to humanity

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
50 of 50 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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4 of 4 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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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It helps if you already know a lot about music 10 Sep 2010
(This review originally appeared in BBC Focus)

Over the years Desert Island Discs has had over 2,000 guests, ranging from aesthetes to athletes. But no matter who they are, most of them insist that music is very important to them, and that picking just eight recordings was the devil's own job. Okay, some of them probably can't tell Scarlatti from Mr Scruff, but there's no doubting that for many of us music is more than acoustic wallpaper - it's mind-altering stuff.

Quite how it weaves its magic is described in impressive detail in this latest work by the award-winning science writer Philip Ball. He describes how music has developed since the first instruments (bone flutes) were created at least 40,000-odd years ago, and how composers have found ways to trigger specific emotions using nothing more than markings on lined paper. He then goes on to describe some of the theories now emerging for why, for example, a Mozart sonata can be wonderfully uplifting while Mahler's 10th symphony can leave you scared witless.

Ball really knows his stuff, and thinks nothing of comparing the final bars of Aaron Copland's
"Quiet City" to ZZ Top's "Ko Ko Blue". Frankly, in places the book is just too detailed, and while Ball explains the basics of musical notation, it's nowhere near enough to get the most out of this book. But music-lovers who want an in-depth understanding of what moves them should look no further.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars One Star
Published 2 hours ago by A. Wells
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 10 days ago by geoffrey
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 11 days 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 7 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 10 months ago by Anna Demkowicz-Dobrzanska
5.0 out of 5 stars very readable overview of the subject
Much of Ball's subject matter was familiar to me but I found it satisfying to have it brought together and expounded so clearly. Read more
Published 12 months ago by Sarah
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 16 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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