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

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…