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The Music Instinct - Philip Ball ****

A remarkable book exploring the nature of music, how it's written and how it affects us. It was published back in 2010, but I've only just come across it, and it hasn't aged at all.

I suspect I am in many ways the perfect audience - I have sung for many years and read music, but have no formal musical training. At the same time, I find the science behind it all fascinating. However, Philip Ball's analysis is of far more than how music works physically and how it influences the brain - though that's all in here. To an extent this is a love letter to music. It shows us why music is so important to our lives. How it fulfils far more than simply to act as auditory cheesecake (as Steven Pinker described it) both in terms of the mechanics of music itself and the ways that it insinuates itself into so many spheres of activity.

I challenge anyone with an interest in music to read this book and not come away with new and interesting insights. If you are a music expert, the science side will fill in some gaps in your knowledge, while if you like music but haven't much of a clue what's going on under the bonnet, there's an opportunity to get into the guts of what's happening, whether your preferences are Mozart or Stravinsky, Charlie Parker or Pink Floyd. (Or all the above.)

The only reason the book doesn't get five stars is that I suspect that Ball allowed his enthusiasm for the subject to carry him away a little. The Music Instinct is a tad too long, and gives too much detail on some of the more esoteric aspects of musical theory. Even so, this was a book I was eager to come back to every time I put it down (which is rarely the case with a book of this length or intensity).

There are many examples in the book, shown in musical notation, but accompanied by samples to listen to, though unfortunately at the time of writing they are not available. [Addition: thanks to Philip Ball for pointing out that the samples are available on the US publisher's website here.] Although it's not always possible easily pinpoint the specific bit of the music referred to, the availability of streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music meant that I was able to listen to unfamiliar pieces like Berg's Lyric Suite to get a better feel for what Ball was addressing.

Neither a music theory nor a science of music book (but with enough science to count as a popular science book), The Music Instinct pulls together the importance of music and its impact on human beings in an impressive fashion. There is no musical snobbishness here - it's for any music lover.



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