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on 12 June 2011
Robert Jourdain takes a more technical approach to the question "What is music?", aiming to cover a lot of ground.
He looks at music as a mood enhancer used by different people in different ways. There seem to be some universal features such as the correct music for film scores to emphasize love, suspense, anger etc., but it is also personal, in that one mans exciting beat is another's boredom and irritation.

The book, I think mistakenly, sticks mostly to classical music. A true comprehensive study of the emotional impact of music should look at the music that most people listen and react to, rather than the (admittedly more interesting) minority classical area.

He follows the trail of sound from the most simple to the most complex, from chapter 1, "From sound.... " to chapter 10 ".....to ecstasy."

Hearing is identified as the most recent sense, following behind the evolution of vision, touch, taste and smell. Animals react to sound, and so do we, although we can take things to a higher level of analysis in what we hear. Our unique sound is structured speech (essential to us) and seemingly not so essential music.

Speech ranges from the very simple and satisfying, designed to communicate basic desires, to the complicated and difficult, designed to communicate complex ideas - potentially also satisfying, but in an intellectually more structured way.

Similarly, music ranges from the simple melody that gives an easy pleasure, to more complicated orchestral music that can deliver pleasure through more careful listening and appreciation of its structure.

He shows that music is unnatural in that it mostly deals in vibrations that emanate from 1 (which can be any frequency) and its simplest divisions; 2,3 giving1/2 2/3 etc. In contrast, natural sounds can be any fraction, depending for example on how strongly the wind is rustling some leaves. It's the structure that makes the music, and as Jourdain says, "it is not the waltz's notes, but rather relations between those notes that makes a body want to dance."
On page 85 he interestingly gives rules for handling these relations (i.e. in composing a melody) that seem to amount to a (chaotic?) edge. If the composition is more predictable it will be boring and if it is less predictable it will be confusing and irritating.

He relates the more personal kinds of music mood enhancement to the effects of different drugs. As he says, "Psychologists have long known that different personality types are attracted to different types of drugs, legal and illegal. There's a parallel here. We "take" a certain type of music to steer our central nervous systems towards a particular condition: hard rock as the frenzied rush of cocaine; easy-listening genres as a martini; cheery supermarket Muzak as a pick-me-up cup of coffee; cool jazz as a laid-back marijuana high; the far flung landscapes of classical music as the fantasy realm of psychedelics.

Throughout the text he uses Henry Mancini's "Pink Panther" theme to illustrate his points, making an interesting contrast on page 294: The theme has a stealthy feel to it as you imagine a panther creeping along. The word "stealth" conjures up some ideas but as he says, "The music mimics stealth; it doesn't name it." - Hence the directness and emotional impact as it doesn't have to pass through the verbal stage. There is a sort of instinctive reaction and as he points out, "A nervous system must always be on the lookout for the most important activities to which to devote itself. This is the ultimate purpose of emotion."

So the conclusion, although he doesn't spell it out, is that; music that mimics (usually pop music) triggers emotions, and that music that creates a complex harmonic structure triggers a cooler aesthetic appreciation (and emotion only to the extent that it mimics).

This book is highly recommended.
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on 2 December 2009
This is a marvellous read but don't expect it to be an easy ride. It doesn't say much about the author's background, which I would certainly have liked to know more about. He clearly knows his subject however, to the point where the book's exhortation that one need know nothing of musical theory seems at times a little misleading. Similarly, a grounding in at least some form of neurology or psychology would be helpful to get the most out of the book. Halfway through, I was fairly sure that I'd get to the end and then want to start again from the beginning but the overwhelming detail eventually made that idea unappealing. The book's claim that it would make you think about your favourite song "in startling new ways" was not so far from the truth. However, from a songwriter's perspective it might be a little scary: having the recipe for the "perfect melody" is one thing; subsequently appreciating just how fragile (and individual) is the brain's distinction between good and bad composition is another.

This is actually quite a relevant point. Some of the other reviews have mentioned how irritating it can be to be constantly reminded that musical genius is (supposedly) long gone but if you can manage to ignore some of the more unhelpful and bitchy remarks ("Noise-laden instruments like the electric guitar are anathema to the harmony listener.") and perhaps see this book more from a technical angle, your efforts should be well rewarded. Robert Jourdain colours his quasi-scientific discourse with an unabashed and obvious preference for anything less than two hundred years old, even while he's in the middle of explaining to you the reasons why people tend to prefer one kind of music out of so many available musical forms. Given the effort he has obviously put into researching his subject so thoroughly and the level of his conviction, it seems unlikely that this irony is lost on him.

Personally, I enjoyed the book very much, although my overwhelming reaction was to want to tie him down for a week and force him to listen to a selection of early Genesis albums until he relented . . .
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on 25 March 1999
I haven't been this excited about a book in years. Jourdain explains how the brain functions to hear sounds, tones, melodies, rhythms, and entire works. He constantly moves back and forth between the experience of music and how the brain is responding to the musical inputs, covering composition and performance as well as listening to music. And as to how music has the ability to work on our emotions, Jourdain comes up with the first truly compelling explanation. This book is well written and easy to read while still being thought-provoking and memorable. It's been several weeks since I read it, and now I find myself experiencing music in a different and richer way. Definitely read this book!
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on 9 April 1998
Are you a composer, trying to figure out how to make a good melody? or a music student wondering how we arrived at the 12 tones?

or a recording engineer trying to figure how
the brain creates the sense of sorround sound;
this is a MUST read!

Robert Jourdain goes deep into every aspect of music- from raw sound to tone to melody to harmony to rhythm - and every aspect of music making - composition, performance and listening - and its impact - of emotion and ecstasy.
With each aspect, he starts with practical observations and poses questions that you want to find answers to.

He then digs into science research and
outlines the answers that have been proposed.

Very few books combine insights from so many fields, still few integrate them so well and in such a lovely language!

A Master Piece, Robert Jourdaine!
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on 24 August 1998
Robert Jourdain writes effortlessly about the latest research in neuroscience and the most scholarly musicology, combining the two into fascinating insights about how we relate to music, and how music is itself shaped by our special abilities and limitations. An "Aha!" on almost every page.
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on 25 July 1998
Why does music us so deeply? In Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures our Imaginations, Robert Jourdain explores how music enables people "to attain a greater grasp of the world (or at least a small part of it), rising from the ground to look down upon the confining maze of ordinary existence." (p. 331) Most of us experience this transcendence while listening to music at some time in our lives and we are fascinated to learn that it is a universal, human experience.
Jourdain makes a complex subject comprehensible to lay persons. In the early chapters of his book, he lays the groundwork for his discussion of music in the middle chapters.
In the first chapter, he draws on biology, physiology, and neuroscience to tell us how our ears and our brains evolved and how they work. Here's his version of how we hear. "Music slams into an eardrum at the end of the ear canal and abruptly changes costume. Until this point it has traveled as a press! ure wave through air; now it proceeds as mechanical motion. Just beyond is the air-filled middle ear, where three odd-shaped bones, the ossicles, are strung from ligaments so that the eardrum pushes against the first (the malleus, or "hammer"), which yanks at the second (the incus, or "anvil"), which shoves the third (the stapes, or "stirrup") into an opening to the fluid-filled inner ear where neurons (nerve cells) await. Just like the air molecules that have transported music to the eardrum, these minuscule bones vibrate in a complex pattern that at any instant embodies every frequency contained in every note." (p. 8)
In the second chapter, Jourdain draws on physics to explain how sound becomes musical tone. He explains the concept of overtones so that you don't need a background in physics or in music to understand it. And better yet, he tells you how you can learn to hear musical overtones yourself. "You can sit at a piano and! strike a note at the midrange (of the keyboard), then soft! ly play the note at an octave above, which is the first overtone. When you play the first note again, your brain will know where to look for the overtone. Some people claim to be able to pick out a dozen overtones this way, but you're doing well if you manage just a few." (p. 35)
After he explains musical tone, Jourdain launches into the real topic of the book--how music captures our imagination. At this point, he tells us more than most people will want to know.
In the middle chapters, Jourdain surveys the elements of music-melody, harmony, and rhythm-and overviews composition and performance before he discusses listening, understanding, and ecstasy in the last chapters. The musical explanations are technically accurate (Jourdain himself is a pianist and a composer) but they are easier to read if you already have a background in music theory. If you don't, you may want to skip to the final chapter.
Jourdain livens up his scientific and musical explanations ! with entertaining stories about composers and performers. Did you know that Franz Liszt, the 19th century composer, pianist, and conductor, saw colors in his mind's eye when he heard music? He experienced a "rare phenomenon called color hearing, (in which) the senses become crossed and every musical sound is shadowed by colorful, formless visual imagery. And so, Liszt would instruct an orchestra, 'Please gentlemen, a little bluer if you please. This key demands it.'" (p. 326)
If you're one of those people who are hypersensitive to noise, did you know that you are not alone in this? Jourdain relates that loud noise made the infant Mozart sick and that Handel would not go into a concert hall until after the instruments had been tuned. He tells us that the Germans have a word for this hypersensitivity to sound-they call it, Horlust, meaning roughly "hearing passion," and that "superior musical neurology may manifest itself as an excruciating sens! itivity to sound." (p. 188)
In the last chapter, ! Jourdain explains why listening to music can move people to ecstasy. "Many people say that it is beauty alone that draws them to music. But great music brings us even more. By providing the brain with an artificial environment, and forcing it through that environment in controlled ways, music imparts the means of experiencing relations far deeper than we encounter in our everyday lives. When music is written with genius, every event is carefully selected to build the substructure for exceptionally deep relations. No resource is wasted, no distractions are allowed. In this perfect world, our brains are able to piece together larger understandings than they can in the workaday external world, perceiving all-encompassing relations that go much deeper than those we find in ordinary experience...It's for this reason that music can be transcendent. For a few moments, it makes us larger than we really are, and the world more orderly than it really is. We respond not just to! the beauty of the sustained deep relations that are revealed, but also to the fact of our perceiving them. As our brains are thrown into overdrive, we feel our very existence expand and realize that we can be more than we normally are, and that the world is more than it seems. That is cause enough for ecstasy." (p. 331)
Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy is a satisfying read and worth your investment of time. If you get bogged down with details, scan ahead, or go to the last chapter. The last chapter makes sense without the material in the middle chapters, although reading them will deepen your understanding. All in all, Jourdain will give you much to think about, and you may find yourself returning to the book, time and time again, as I have.
Roberta Shroyer, Instructor of piano and music theory, Queen Anne Music Studio, Seattle Washington
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on 5 July 1999
While an interesting read, I found Jourdain's book frequently annoyed for the same reasons that, in retrospect, I now realize my junior high music snob phase annoyed. For a few years there, I listened to nothing but Western classical music of about 1500 to 1900. I reveled in my superior taste. Thank goodness I got that out of my system at an early age. Mr. Jourdain seems never to have outgrown it. His constricted musical tastes made him to lose credibility with me when he moved from areas with which he clearly resonates (harmony and mainstream Western classical music) to those that do comparatively little for him (rhythm, non-Western music, modern music, jazz, rock, the list goes on and on). The book is most interesting for what it reveals about the author, not for what it tells us about music.
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on 19 March 1999
Jourdain's background as a musician and man of science allows him to cover a subject that pleases both right and left-brained readers. He logically unfolds the story of music from its simplest form as soundwave to the complex nature which allows music to "touch" our souls. I have fresh appreciation of music as a gift which no one, least of all musicians, should ever take for granted.
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on 7 June 1999
Robert Jourdain's book does have some worthy insights to offer, but I am truly offended by much of it. His hostility towards 20th. century music is hardly veiled by his psuedo-science (see pages 99-101). He seems to view all modern music as a reaction against earlier music. Does he like Bach because the music is merely "pretty"? And does he dislike (e.g.) Berg simply because the music is atonal and thus "hurts his ears"? Doesn't he recognize the difference between Beethoven or Carter (art) and Andrew Loyd Weber (kitsch)? Surely we can transcend all of this and recognize the universality of all brilliant art music.
On pages 194-5, he proposes his hypotheses for why there are no "genius" composers in today's modern world, as well as showing his complete lack of knowledge of any modern music scene in the world. This is a uniquely American perspective -- in other parts of the world, living composers are respected and held in high esteem.
Indeed, Mr. Jourdain, there are many brilliant (living) composers of art music for those who are willing to open their minds a bit. Not all listeners feel the need to "flee" from a performance of Schoenberg (p. 100), and not all authors feel the need to criticize an art they clearly do not understand.
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on 15 April 1998
With simple yet engaging style, the author carries the reader through all aspects of music perception, from listening to enjoying it. He demonstrates that all brain processes associated with it are actually subtle and very sophisticated. Concepts like patterns, classes, structures and sequences come into play to convey the elusive feeling of ecstasy that we expericence with music.
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