A couple of issues ago, I wrote a column about the discipline of "music cognition": the scientific exploration of how we listen to and/or hear music. Now, another major volume on this aspect of music — its perception, its philosophy, how it works on us and scientifically why it does so — has been published. It is Philip Ball's The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It (Bodley Head, £20), a tour-de-force extending to more than 400 pages and investigating these issues from what appears to be every possible angle.
With exemplary lucidity, Ball explains everything from the tuning of different scales in different cultures, how our hearing works both physically and psychologically, at what age babies start to recognise patterns, the necessity for the education of the ear and, to take just one more example, the reasons why Schoenberg may have been wrong to expect too much of his listeners. He makes occasional judgments with which I would take issue — such as certain remarks about Sibelius, who was one of the strongest voices of his day — but these are small points in a volume that represents an extraordinary achievement of explication concerning the science of an art and the art of its science.
Daniel Barenboim: A rare articulacy
This book arrives only 18 months after Daniel Barenboim's Everything is Connected (Weidenfeld & Nicholson). A comparatively slender volume, it collects some of his essays, lectures and general thoughts on music and also the Middle East, with a chapter devoted to his Israeli-Palestinian West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The most fascinating material, though, is arguably that in which Barenboim explores the way that the inner workings of music mirror the inner workings of life, showing us how we can improve one through better understanding of the other. It's rare to find a musician as articulate with words as Barenboim is with notes, and while his demonstrations of music as a metaphor for life are philosophical and poetic rather than scientific, that doesn't make them any less true.
The questions addressed by both authors peel away some of the layers that veil the mystery of music, the interfacing of art and science, the reasons, indeed, why music in one form or another is part of us and is so everywhere in the world.
But other questions are nagging. Why? Why all this, and why now?
Partly, I expect, because we can. Scientific advances, experimental techniques, etc, now make such explorations possible in great detail, more or less for the first time. And by now ethnomusicologists have minutely analysed the traditional music of just about every corner of the globe. So now comparisons, contrasts, similarities and differences between the styles, workings and uses of music can be assessed side by side that much more easily.