Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination

Overview

What makes a distant oboe's wail beautiful? Why do some kinds of music lift us to ecstasy, but not others? How can music make sense to an ear and brain evolved for detecting the approaching lion or tracking the unsuspecting gazelle? Lyrically interweaving discoveries from science, psychology, music theory, paleontology, and philosophy, Robert Jourdian brilliantly examines why music speaks to us in ways that words cannot, and why we form such powerful connections to it. In clear, understandable language, Jourdian ...

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Overview

What makes a distant oboe's wail beautiful? Why do some kinds of music lift us to ecstasy, but not others? How can music make sense to an ear and brain evolved for detecting the approaching lion or tracking the unsuspecting gazelle? Lyrically interweaving discoveries from science, psychology, music theory, paleontology, and philosophy, Robert Jourdian brilliantly examines why music speaks to us in ways that words cannot, and why we form such powerful connections to it. In clear, understandable language, Jourdian expertly guides the reader through a continuum of musical experience: sound, tone, melody, harmony, rhythm, composition, performance, listening, understanding—and finally to ecstasy. Along the way, a fascinating cast of characters brings Jourdian's narrative to vivid life: "idiots savants" who absorb whole pieces on a single hearing, composers who hallucinate entire compositions, a psychic who claims to take dictation from long-dead composers, and victims of brain damage who can move only when they hear music. Here is a book that will entertain, inform, and stimulate everyone who loves music—and make them think about their favorite song in startling new ways.What makes a distant oboes wail beautiful? Why do some kinds of music lift us to ecstasy, but not others? How can music make sense to an ear and brain evolved for detecting the approaching lion or tracking the unsuspecting gazelle? Lyrically interweaving discoveries from science, psychology, music theory, paleontology, and philosophy, Robert Jourdian brilliantly examines why music speaks to us in ways that words cannot, and why we form such powerful connections to it.

In clear, understandable language, Jourdian expertly guides the reader through a continuum of musical experience: sound, tone, melody, harmony, rhythm, composition, performance, listening, understanding—and finally to ecstasy. Along the way, a fascinating cast of characters brings Jourdians narrative to vivid life: idiots savants who absorb whole pieces on a single hearing, composers who hallucinate entire compositions, a psychic who claims to take dictation from long-dead composers, and victims of brain damage who can move only when they hear music. Here is a book that will entertain, inform, and stimulate everyone who loves music—and make them think about their favorite song in startling new ways.

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Editorial Reviews

Boston Phoenix
Jourdian's deep love for serious music...gives his book a moral force and passon rare in science writing.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380782093
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/28/2008
  • Series: Quill
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 254,074
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

When not writing about science and technology, Robert Jourdian plays the piano and composes. MUSIC, THE BRAIN, AND ECSTASY is his sixth book. He livesin Mendocino, California.

When not writing about science and technology, Robert Jourdian plays the piano and composes. MUSIC, THE BRAIN, AND ECSTASY is his sixth book. He livesin Mendocino, California.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

From sound ...

On a balmy summer's afternoon, beneath a weeping willow beside a pond, a solitary flutist draws a deep breath and be ins to play. Within the glistening tube, a column of air rattles in protestation of its confinement, its cries fanning upward to cars perched oil branches, downward to ears nestled in burrows, outward to ears immersed in water.

A paramecium patrols the ooze at the pond's edge, searching, ingesting, dividing, fleeing. Although its entire being is expressed in but .1 single cell, this protozoan knows much of the world. A light-sensitive spot fills its days with brightness and darkness and shades of gray. Chemical mechanisnis let it smell what is near and taste what it encounters. Collisions with its surroundings are felt and acknowledged. But the parainecium Senses no more of the flute's sweet warble than we do of the radio waves that pass through our bodies. It spends its life in silence, or more correctly, Ill soundIcssiless, for silence is the delicious muffle of all auditory system in repose, and an annual lacking all auditory system can no more know silence than one born blind can know darkness.

Circling the paraniecium are multicellular behemoths-flatworms and mites and rotifers — whose tissues, simple organs, and nerve nets flaunt distinguished ancestries. The first 80 percent of life's three-and-a-halfbillion-year evolution went into building such creatures. Primitive? Yes. Yet their complex eyes, their sensitive touch, their versatile chemical receptors are the bedrock that one day would support the appreciation of a Sargent watercolor, a Balanchine Tarantella, a glass of fineMargaux. But nowhere in these estimable beasts is there so much as a hint of the possibility of knowing a Mozart quartet.

Even with two hundred million years' evolution more — still soundlessness. For a jellyfish or a sea anemone, an octopus or a sea slug, a starfish or a sea urchin, the ocean's swooshes and gurgles are felt but not heard. Insects fared little better. A few species developed ears, but hardly of the sort that could one day evolve to accommodate a symphony. Such an ear would have to wait until animals developed backbones, and even then this newfound sense would pass its infancy minding little more thin the bass tones of thrashing prey.

Hearing, it seems, is the difficult sense-slow to evolve, repeatedly undercut by evolutionary developments, reliant upon the most intricate and fragile mechanical structures in the body. It was forged through hundreds of millions of years of natural selection as countless lineages perished from detecting a predator too late, finding no mate, or overlooking a meal hidden nearby. Hearing was a late bloomer, following upon already welldeveloped vision and touch and taste and smell. Yet we take for granted the experience our ears provide. For us, sound is self-evident, complete, inevitable. But for most of nature's countless billions of ears, sound is something much less than it is to us.

Less? But doesn't sound exist independently of the ears that listen to it? It depends on what you mean by "sound." In physics, sound is indeed nothing more than vibrations. But in psychology, sound is a kind of experience a brain extracts from its environment. Where the physicist finds energy, the psychologist finds -information. A physicist can precisely measure a volume of sound, but no psychologist would have the faintest idea how to assay a quantity of music. Although both professions lay claim to the study of sound, it is actually the sensation of sound that concerns the psychologist. A physicist will tell you that the rattlings of air molecules are much the same to any ears, whether those of a frog or a cow or a human, But a psychologist will warn that the sensations derived from those vibrations vary greatly among species.

Consider nature's first musician, the cricket. Its "ears" consist of thinnings on its front knees that vibrate only at certain frequencies made by rasping cricket legs. It's tempting to think that crickets sound to each other as they sound to us. But they experience nothing like our sensation of sound. In their world, particular frequencies elicit particular stock behaviors, almost like a flip of a switch. So there's no need for their brains to analyze sounds the way ours do. If your human brain could somehow listen within a cricket's head, you'd encounter nothing like the serenade of cricket chirps you enjoy on a summer evening. Rather, an impulse to move in a particular way would arise, and when it became strong enough, legs and wings would snap to. That's all there is to it-no backdrop of wind through pine needles, no trickle of a nearby stream, no haunting echoes. A cricket can hear, but its experience is soundless by our standards.

Birds make better musicians. They chirp and chitter, trill and twitter, honk and hoot. Such sounds consist of many frequencies all ringing at once. Because the same frequencies occur in different calls, a bird can't distinguish one squawk from another by resorting to the cricket's ploy of listening for particular frequencies. Rather, it identifies sounds by sensing a vast range of frequencies and analyzing their structure. A bird's brain traces every rise and fall in a sound's contour, spots peaks and valleys, searches for patterns of repetition, and, in songbirds, relates successions of sounds. Many birds do this so well that they can recognize each other's individual voices. There are even regional dialects. The same cognitive faculties that let birds recognize each other are available for listening to the world at large. And so, in their own way, birds hear every cricket chirp, every rustling leaf, every falling tree.

Yet birds, even songbirds, have no experience of music. A few notes of birdsong no more make a melody than a few words make a poem. Even the half-hour-long calls of whales, nature's divas of the deep, consist of monotonous repetition. When sometimes we descry a snip of a melody in...

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2003

    excellent combination of brain science and music theory

    The title of this book is a bit unfortunate, because the subject matter is more scientific and less poetical than it suggests. The topics considered include music theory and harmony, brain activation, psychophysics of acoustics, as well as ruminations on the art of composing and performing music. The writing is graceful, but occasionally the images are overwrought, and the conclusions few amid a wealth of interesting material. Jourdain describes how the intervals of Western music may be optimal for the pitch discrimination apparatus of the inner ear. He speculates that only man has evolved the appreciation for music of large and complex structure because of the evolution of speech. Speech recognition depends on hearing high frequency sounds that form the contours of consonants. Professional musicians tend to use more left brain analytical mechanisms when listening than non-professionals, whose right brain areas specialized for prosody are more active. His theory on appreciation of music depends on setting up anticipations by experience with typical scales and progressions of the musical tradition, then frustrating or completing the anticipation in large musical phrases. The concept of motor patterning, anticipation of movements to come in performing and listening, may also play a part in appreciation. Altogether, very thought provoking and informative.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 4, 2006

    This Book *Actually* Changed my Life!

    Though probably written for those more scientifically-minded than me, 'Music, The Brain and Ecstasy' is a mind-opening read. While reading it, one constantly puts it down to go listen to music, just to partake in the miraculous experience of hearing! The question of WHY music gives humans a high, making them dance, is rarely confronted, but this book does a swell job of answering it also, it may open your eyes to the music of other cultures, change the way you listen to music, and even the music you listen to. So how did it change my life? I learned that the number one way humans choose their musical genre is what the group they identify with listens to - that is why our tastes are so often the same from teenage years on. Inspired by this book, I set out on my own journey to find the music I adored, beyond the popular music I wanted to identify with. Consequently, I fell in love with Middle Eastern music. Thank you Jourdain!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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