Top positive review
59 people found this helpful
on 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.
I should add that as well as being reliable and pretty comprehensive on the science, this book is also extremely well written - I can tell that, because it took me so little sweat to read it.
The only book I can think of to rival this which the general reader might tackle is Ani Patel's book on Music and Language. However, this is quite tough for a non-specialist to handle - it is probably more of an overview for research workers, unless you're really feeling strong. Also, anything by John Sloboda is excellent, but again some of it can be technical and a bit heavy going for the non-academic person. David Huron's 'Sweet Anticipation' is superb, though it covers less ground than Ball and it pushes a theory of emotion induction that I personally believe to be good but incomplete. But hey, that's just a personal view. Huron may turn out to be right all along.
Anyway, the bottom line is that if you have any interest in understanding music at anything below serious academic research worker level, get this book - and avoid the airport bookshelf alternatives by the way, as most of them are pretty unimpressive (I've tried them). There is some real crud out there, but by contrast this book doesn't dumb down, it doesn't try and impress you with how many famous people the author has dined with or how many has-been pop singers he knows, and it doesn't try, and embarrassingly fail, to be humorous. For those reasons alone it should deserve every reader's undying gratitude.