Skip to main content

You Are the Music – Victoria Williamson ***

Although there’s quite an industry now in debunking claims that something or other is what makes us human, I’ve some sympathy with the slightly different twist in the subtitle of Victoria Williamson’s book: ‘how music reveals what it is to be human.’ You may not have to be human to be musical, but it certainly gives us some interesting insights into our brains.
In a detailed exploration of the psychology of music, Williamson takes us into the fact and fable of claims like the old chestnut that listening to music (particularly Mozart) can improve your child’s intelligence. The simple answer is that listening doesn’t, but learning to play an instrument or sing does make a small difference in some very specific brain functions, like being able to distinguish sounds. However it’s worth pointing out that, unless the real aim is to learn how to play or sing, the amount of effort required is totally out of proportion to the gain. And if children aren’t young enough for our voyage into the capabilities of music, even see if music can influence the unborn child.
Later on there’s an in-depth look at music in our adult life and the relationship between music and memory – including the remarkable factoid that 30 percent of people can correctly identify the name and artist of a popular song after hearing it for only 0.4 seconds, a tiny snippet of sound. Interestingly, though the people tested were young adults, they found it easiest to identify 1960s and 1970s tunes. Williamson suggests (probably tongue in cheek) that music was better then. I’d suggest it might be more a combination of being the kind of music their parents would listen to – so the music the test subjects were brought up with – and an effect of the way that distinctive tunes were more common back then, in an age without sampling, rapping and song-free dance music.
I am reasonably musical – I sang in a Cambridge college chapel choir – so I expected to be absolutely delighted with this book… but though there is lots of lovely material in there, I felt a little let down. In part it is because the style is a little flat – the book felt about twice as long as it really is – but mostly I suspect it is because music psychologists and professional musicians think that music is more important than it really is. Yes, it plays a pivotal role in our teens, but for most of our lives it’s just something to stick in if you are bored in the car or gym or while doing the washing up – or that is very effective at eliciting emotions in the background in films (the music that swells under the ‘Daddy, my daddy!’ sequence in the Railway Children is enough to make me cry without the visuals) – which is immensely powerful, but still not really a of major significance in our lives.
So a brilliant idea, with plenty of really interesting content – and a must-read for anyone that interested in music or the workings of the human brain – but not as enjoyable as I hoped it would be. It’s quite possibly because I was so looking forward to it that it was inevitably a bit of a disappointment – so I do recommend you try it for yourself.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Case Against Reality - Donald Hoffman ***

It's not exactly news that our perception of the world around us can be a misleading confection of the brain, rather than a precise picture of reality - everything from optical illusions to the apparent motion of video confirms this - but professor of cognitive science Donald Hoffman goes far beyond this. He wants us to believe that spacetime and the objects in it are not real: that they only exist when we perceive them. It's not that he believes everything to be totally illusory, but suggests that the whole framework of the physical world is a construction of our minds.

To ease us into this viewpoint, Hoffman gives the example of the Necker cube - the clever two-dimensional drawing apparently of a cube which can be seen in two totally different orientations. Calling these orientations 'Cube A and Cube B' he remarks that our changing perceptions suggest that 'neither Cube A nor Cube B is there when no one looks, and there is no objective cube that exists unobserve…

The Body - Bill Bryson ****

I am a huge fan of Bill Bryson's travel books - he is a superb storyteller, and in the best parts of his science writing, this ability to provide fascinating facts and intriguing tales shines through.

After taking on the whole of science in his first book, here he focuses in on the physiology, anatomy and diseases of the human body. Bryson does so with his usual light, approachable style, peppering the plethora of facts (and 'don't know's - it's amazing how much we still don't know about the workings of the body) with the little nuggets you can't help but share and stories of some of the odd and, frankly, horrifying goings on in the history of medicine.

So, for example, Bryson throws in 'The chin is unique to humans and no one knows why we have one.' He speculates that it might be just that we 'find a good chin dashing' and quotes a Harvard professor as saying 'Testing this last hypothesis is especially difficult, but the reader is encoura…