Skip to main content

Polyphonic Minds - Peter Pesic ***

This book conjures up distinctly mixed feelings. The title feels rather misleading, as it is primarily a book about musical polyphony. The 'minds' part comes in during the final 10% of the book, where we do have some consideration of the relationship between polyphony and the way the brain works - but it's certainly not the main focus here.

As it happens, in covering the development of polyphony in the West through the ages, with particular reference to church music, it covers something I am very interested in - so I found it highly engaging (if rather stodgy in writing style). However, without that interest it doesn't have enough on the mind and brain to interest a purely popular science reader (it is classified as music/science).

What we get is a thorough exploration of the way musical structures have changed in time, from what we can deduce about Ancient Greek music, through the earliest recorded church music as it moved from primarily being monophonic chant to having multiple voices, intertwining and interacting in their impact on the ear. What made the book particularly effective is that there are lots of examples, where we get the sheet music in the book - but the clever bit is this is supported by a website which has sound clips of all the examples, so you can hear how the polyphonic approach has grown, up to Tallis's mind-blowing Spem in Alium (I've sung in this, but I've never seen all 40 parts written out at once), and into modern takes on polyphony.

The reader will get far more than an exploration of the development of a musical technique. We see, for example, the constant battles between two camps, one of which wants simple music merely to support the words and the other looking for the most mind-blowing way to set words to music without worrying too much if you can understand them. I was aware of this happening in the UK during the Reformation, but didn't realise how much earlier it had started. And to cap it all, one of the examples of the way discordant combinations have been used is illustrated by one of my favourite bits of music ever, the ending of Byrd's Agnus Dei from his Four Part Mass, where the suspensions (I've always thought of them as scrunches) make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

So, the way this book is rated very much depends on what you want out of it. If you are looking for science, there is a little, both on the physical nature of sound production, harmony and discord, plus the history of the development of ideas about how the brain works. But primarily this is a history of music book, focusing on that one, wonderful topic of polyphony. If the musical content is for you, then this is a strongly recommended read.

Hardback:  

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…