on 10 March 2011
Considering how ubiquitous music is as a cultural phenomenon (as Storr points out, there are practically no known cultures in world history which lack music of some kind), it is remarkable how little is understood about its true nature: what is its purpose, how does it function, where does its power and meaning (if it has meaning) come from? This book attempts to shed some light on these questions from a philosophical and psychological perspective (with more of an emphasis on the former, contrary to what the book's title might seem to suggest).
Most of the book is dedicated to outlining various existing theories concerning the psychological nature of music. This is done in an accessible, clear style, with each viewpoint being described in turn before the author's criticisms and reservations are given. The basic views of Plato, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer on music, as well as theories of several musicologists and psychologists, are examined, with just enough philosophical and scientific background to make everything intelligible while still being accessible. In fact, the chapters on Nietzsche and Schopenhauer (the author is broadly sympathatic to their views on music) could easily serve on their own as introductions for those who want to know these thinkers' views on music without going into too much unnecessary philosophical background.
One of the book's weaknesses is that some chapters read a little too much like standalone essays - there is not always a clear line of argument running from one chapter to the next. This is largely because Storr is more interested in discussing existing ideas rather than expounding his own: there is no consistent overarching thesis running through the book. The strength of the book lies mainly in the clarity with which each idea is explained - the style is always readable while still remaining academically rigorous.
There is frequently a hint of Eurocentrism in Storr's arguments. For example, the composer/performer/audience hierarchy, which is basically unique to Western classical music, is often treated as a given when considering the fundamental (not culturally-specific) nature of music. To be fair, Storr does give a disclaimer on the first page stating that the book does reflect his own preference for Western art music, and in my experience most musicological works share a similar bias.
On the whole, this book provides a thoughtful and accessible overview of the basic issues relating to the psychological basis and function of music, and should be near the top of the reading list for anyone who is interested in this subject.
Psychologist Anthony Storr's exploration of the power of music on the mind is more a collection of essays than a comprehensive teleological argument. It is no less thought-provoking for that. As he writes in his introduction, "This book is an explanatory search; an attempt to discover what it is about music that so profoundly affects us, and why it is such an important part of our culture." He emphasises that his words are concerned only with the canon of western `classical' music, noting that, "It is only since the 1950s that the gap between classical and popular music has widened into a canyon which is nearly unbridgeable."
There are nine chapters, and I will attempt to give a brief summary of their contents, using Storr's own words as much as possible. At the time of writing this review, the book is already twenty years old, so subsequent research may have slightly altered or radically changed some of the conclusions proposed in Storr's book.
The first chapter - `Origins & Collective Functions' - addresses various theories proposed to explain the origins of and reasons for music: from babies to birdsong, Plato to Darwin. Storr deals with objections to each theory but avers that, "We can perceive that language and music were originally more closely joined, and that it makes sense to think of music as deriving from a subjective, emotional need for communication with other human beings which is prior to the need for conveying objective information or exchanging ideas."
`Music, Brain, and Body' is the title of the second chapter. Here, Storr analyses the priority of hearing over the other senses (which occurs even in the womb). He looks at the physiological effects of music on the brain. This is followed by `Basic Patterns'. Storr asserts that, "Although music is sometimes referred to as a universal language, this is an entirely misleading description. The difficulty of appreciating music from different periods of history or from different cultures is a powerful argument in favour of the view that the various types of music are predominantly cultural artefacts." He does not see the diatonic scale as being the work of nature; rather, music is a creation of the mind.
Quoting the likes of Rosen, Bernstein, Cooke, and Stravinsky, this argument is developed further in chapter four, `Songs Without Words': "If a piece of music has no verbal association or frame of reference ... it is not surprising that there are sometimes different responses to it. What is more interesting is the degree of consensus." Schopenhauer, Tovey, Hanslick, Hindemith, Mendelssohn, Keller are some of the names used to address the meaning of music. Storr writes, "Disputes between formalists and expressionists only begin to be important with the rise of `absolute' music."
This made me think why do I become bored by the symmetry of Baroque but crave the development inherent in sonata form? Here, Storr notes how, in his third Brandenburg Concerto, Bach's "extraordinary skill maintains our interest; but it is an interest based on elaboration, symmetry, and rhythmic pulse, rather than upon progress."
Storr refuted the idea that music (and the arts in general) are an `Escape from Reality?', the title of his fifth chapter, but he does concede that, `The Solitary Listener' (the title of the sixth) "is a modern phenomenon." Here he uses the concept of the solitary listener to music as a jumping board to explore such things as why music enters our head involuntarily when we are alone.
Chapter seven - `The Innermost Nature of the World' - looks at Schopenhauer's theory that music is the greatest of the arts because its effects are unmediated (compared with painting or poetry, for example). Whilst eschewing Schopenhauer's linked belief about music allowing an appreciation, however tentative, of an underlying universal reality, Storr instead conceives music's uniqueness amongst the arts as being down to its capacity for physiological arousal: "Pictures, in short, seldom make me want to dance."
Nietzsche is the focus of chapter eight, `A Justification for Existence'. Storr comments on how Nietzsche's "perception of music as so significant that it can make life worth living seems utterly remote from the mundane preoccupations of Western politicians and educators." This leads nicely into the final chapter, which opens with Storr asking "How is it that an art which promulgates no doctrine, which preaches no gospel, which is often entirely dissociated from verbal meaning, can yet be experienced as making sense of life?" Here he enters the interesting realms of music and movement, spatial formations, structure and repetition. He makes analogies with mathematics and the making sense of chaos.
Storr believes music "is a paradigm of the fundamental human organising activity: the attempt to make structured sense out of chaos." But unlike mathematics, music engages the emotions, it "causes physiological arousal ... It is both intellectual and emotional, restoring the link between mind and body ... motion and emotion are inseparably linked." This is all highly interesting, and yet - to demonstrate how music can be seen in totally different ways - I was dumbfounded to read Storr stating that Bruckner's music is not characterised by a sense of movement to a goal. Huh?
The book ends with references, a bibliography, and an index.
on 10 February 2010
"Music and the Mind" by Anthony Storr was published in 1992 and is a short book, with a main text comprising less than 200 pages.
The psychology of playing and listening to music is a subject I find interesting and this book seemed like something I would enjoy, but I found it disappointing. It's desultory and rambling and, I suspect, focussed on subjects that the author already knew about, and so could write easily. There's an entire chapter on Schopenhauer and another on Nietzsche (there's only nine chapters in the book, so that's a sizable portion), and lots of references to Freud and Jung, even though neither of these had any interest in music, which Storr mentions, but it doesn't stop him bringing them up a lot. I see in the biographical note that Storr has published volumes on Freud and Jung, and their prominence here I think indicates a less than complete engagement in this book. Lots of references to what various philosophers thought of music, but not much original thought, reasoned argument or anything substantial.