The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It


From Bach fugues to Indonesian gamelan, from nursery rhymes to rock, music has cast its light into every corner of human culture. But why music excites such deep passions, and how we make sense of musical sound at all, are questions that have until recently remained unanswered. Now in The Music Instinct, award-winning writer Philip Ball provides the first comprehensive, accessible survey of what is known?and still unknown?about how music works its magic, and why, as much as eating and sleeping, it seems ...

See more details below
$19.28 price
(Save 12%)$21.95 List Price

Pick Up In Store

Reserve and pick up in 60 minutes at your local store

Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (14) from $12.10   
  • New (9) from $18.95   
  • Used (5) from $12.10   
The Music Instinct: How Music Works and Why We Can't Do Without It

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$10.49 price
(Save 30%)$14.99 List Price


From Bach fugues to Indonesian gamelan, from nursery rhymes to rock, music has cast its light into every corner of human culture. But why music excites such deep passions, and how we make sense of musical sound at all, are questions that have until recently remained unanswered. Now in The Music Instinct, award-winning writer Philip Ball provides the first comprehensive, accessible survey of what is known—and still unknown—about how music works its magic, and why, as much as eating and sleeping, it seems indispensable to humanity. Deftly weaving together the latest findings in brain science with history, mathematics, and philosophy, The Music Instinct not only deepens our appreciation of the music we love, but shows that we would not be ourselves without it. The Sunday Times hailed it as "a wonderful account of why music matters," with Ball's "passion for music evident on every page."

Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Ball is to be applauded for the range and aptness of the musical examples he does choose - from Albinoni to Led Zeppelin, Bach to The Sound of Music - as well as for his attention to musics outside western traditions....the book is impressively engaging for one so dense with detail and argument....fascinating." —The Guardian

"Using plentiful examples drawn from a refreshingly wide range of different kinds of music, from Bach to the Beatles, and from nursery rhymes to jazz. If you can read music, you will find yourself humming aloud to see what he means. If you can't....Mr Ball's facility for conveying complex facts in simple language comes to the rescue." —The Economist

"One of the finest and most versatile of current nonfiction writers.... I defy anyone to read this book without coming away better informed about why music affects us in such a profound way...His passion for music is evident on every page, and his enthusiasms (whether for gamelan or Glenn Gould) are infectious. Most powerful is his message that music is a part of the chaos and splendour of human life itself." —The Sunday Times

"Ball's writing is excellent - vivid and colloquial in the best sense, intelligent and stylish without pretense. His explanations are engaging and clear; he lays out complex materials without the condescending oversimplification that is the curse of popularization...A treasure trove of information, explanation, questioning and thoughtful response that will delight and instruct a wide audience of intelligent, sensitive people who love music, who have perhaps felt intimidated by it, and who want to think about and love it better." —American Scientist

"Fact-rich, gracefully written, and deeply insightful: Philip Ball's The Music Instinct is the best compendium on the creation and experience of music so far available. Rare is the writer who can describe the aesthetic pleasures of music in a way that connects it with the best that psychology and brain science can offer to musical understanding. Ball's achievement is altogether remarkable." —Denis Dutton, author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution

"Provides easily the best evaluation of the field to date...An important landmark." —Diana Deutsch, Professor of Psychology, University of California, San Diego, and Founding President, Society for Music Perception and Cognition

"By focusing on the intersection of music theory and cognition rather than neuroscience...Philip Ball fills a niche. The Music Instinct does a great job of explaining rhythm, pitch and timbre and how they combine to make compositions that capture our attention and emotions...The Music Instinct offers an expansive and high-level overview of a complex field. Ball is both an enthusiastic writer about music and a passionate listener engaged with its emotional meaning as much as with its intellectual puzzles—an Aristoxenus for his time." —Daniel J. Levitin, Nature

"One of his great strengths, besides the breadth and solidity of his knowledge, is his consistent refusal to turn intriguing but incomplete evidence into glib take-home stories. Instead, he is meticulous in his attention to both the details and the limits on what they can tell us at present." —The Independent

"Ball weaves fundamental explanations necessary for an amateur's understanding with sophisticated current research, science, and philosophy that broaden the horizons of even the most enlightened connoisseur...Through probing questions and challenges to philosophies, theories and attitudes, Ball's fresh insights promise to deepen the reader's appreciation for all types of music." —American Music Teacher

"Offers an expansive overview of music's fundamental properties and values." —Music Educators Journal

Library Journal
Polymath Ball (Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another) adds to his wide-ranging list of titles with this fascinating, densely packed discourse on ways music interacts with the human brain. Using examples from the Renaissance up to the present day, he explores elements of musical structure such as melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre with an ear to how the listener perceives the music. The writing flows well, considering the challenge of combining research by leading experimental psychologists with exponents of music's theoretical underpinnings. Ball's notion of music as a "gymnasium for the mind" exemplifies the mental activity needed to understand this art form, while its emotional appeal can be a "direct route to the core of our shared humanity." Illustrations, written musical examples, and a website for listening to them are particularly helpful. The extensive bibliography includes both classic treatises and recent articles. VERDICT Likely to appeal to readers with a thorough grounding in the basics of music, Ball does not eschew controversy with his strong opinions.—Barry Zaslow, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199896424
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 7/1/2012
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 685,548
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Philip Ball is a freelance writer and the author of numerous books, including Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral and Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads To Another, which won the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents


Author's Note

1 Prelude: The Harmonious Universe An Introduction 1

2 Overture: Why We Sing What is music and where does it come from? 9

3 Staccato: The Atoms of Music What are musical notes and how do we decide which to use? 32

4 Andante: What's In a Tune? Do melodies follow rules, and if so, which? 91

5 Legato: Keeping It Together How do we decode the sound? 137

6 Tutti: All Together Now How do we use more than one note at a time? 163

7 Con Moto: Slave to the Rhythm What gives music its pulse? 207

8 Pizzicato: The Colour of Music Why do instruments sound different, and how does that affect the music? 228

9 Misterioso: All In the Mind Which bits of the brain do we use for music? 240

10 Appassionato: Light My Fire How does music convey and elicit emotion? 254

11 Capriccioso: Going In and Out of Style What are musical styles? Is music about notes, or patterns, or textures? 322

12 Parlando: Why Music Talks to Us Is music a language? Or is it closer to the non-verbal arts? 355

13 Serioso: The Meaning of Music What are composers and musicians trying to say? Can music in itself say anything at all? 381

Coda: The Condition of Music 409

Credits 413

Notes 415

Bibliography 425

Index 443

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)