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Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: A book Review

eden's picture

“Sound. Glorious Sound.”

-Introduction p.xii

Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy

By Robert Jourdain

Book Review by Eden McQueen

Neurobiology and Behavior, May 2007


Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain is a creative and insightful look into musicology, the science of music. Through clear descriptions and thought-provoking interpretations Jourdain takes his reader from sound, the very simplest component of music, all the way up the neurological ladder to music’s mysterious ability to transform the mind in “ecstasy.” Jourdain is so thorough and patient in guiding the reader through the complex concepts of musicology that even a person with no musical background can easily follow his thought process. The book complimented the Neurobiology course very well, both in general content and in many of the author’s interpretations of the observed phenomena. A few particularly interesting concepts are discussed below.

A very intriguing idea that pervaded the book, and was also discussed in class, is the unconscious “ignoring” of information that enters the brain. Like the blood vessels in the eye that are not registered by the conscious when a person is viewing the world, the brain similarly filters sounds entering the ear, relaying only “important” sounds to the conscious. In general, the important sounds consist of well known, recognizable patterns, such as human voices, or sudden changes in sound, such as a thunder clap. Constant sounds, or “white noises,” often go completely unnoticed, as do gradual changes in sound. When discussing tone, the author noted that when listening to music, most people do not notice if the pitch of a composition is increased slowly but would certainly notice if it happened quickly, though in both instances the pitch change is perceived by the ear itself. Jourdain used this example and others to emphasize that the conscious mind is generally more interested in changes in stimuli, as opposed to registering all stimuli that are received. This is what makes music, a source of constantly changing sound, so enjoyable. While the idea that we, that is to say, our conscious, is not aware of many of the stimuli that are being received is somewhat unsettling, it is logical because in most cases the body does not need to react except in response to changes. However, the fact that if the changes are slow enough they go unnoticed is still slightly disturbing.

Jourdain also pointed out the unconscious brain’s tendency to “lump” of information in order to simplify incoming stimuli. An example of this is the modern Western “tempered” musical scale. One of the first scales attempted, called the Pythagorean scale, had logical spacing between notes based on mathematical proportions. Unfortunately, this scale had a fatal flaw in that the last note before the octave did not quite “fit” into the so-called “perfect” scheme followed by the remainder of the progression. After struggling with this scale for many years, eventually a compromise was reached by the implementation of the modern western “tempered” scale, in which the notable inconsistency experienced due to the space between the last two notes was distributed evenly over the entire scale. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, the small errors throughout the scale are hardly perceived (p.70-71). This is due to the unconscious brain’s ability to estimate, or “lump” sounds together into one perceived sound, although the notes themselves may actually be slightly dissonant. Another interesting application of the brain’s partiality to “lumping” information was discussed in a section devoted to rhythm, in which the author presented the idea that rhythm serves to chop up a musical composition into manageable “chunks” that the brain can quickly and easily process (p.124).

One of the most interesting ideas covered in this book was the parallel between music and storytelling. I found this connection absolutely fascinating, especially since I had never considered it before. The author started with the observation that a good story consists of several things. First, the author establishes a comfortable standard in the story; the happy medium at which the reader feels comfortable. The rest of the story consists of various instances of the realization of this comfort being anticipated, then violated, then reestablished, etc. The effect is a “rollercoaster ride” that keeps the reader interested as he or she reads. Music is composed in the same manner. By giving the listener a basic key, a few commonly recurring chords, and a general pattern of progression, the listener is given to understand the way the piece “should” be. The composer then proceeds to lead the listener up and down, with the listener anticipating the progression of the piece based on the established norm, and then having this anticipation violated by sudden deviation. Resolving the chords brings the listener back to equilibrium, only to again be “deceived.” A composition is therefore only as good as the story it tells.

A great strength of the book is the author’s thorough investigation of the biological aspects of the brain as it related to music. Though there is still some speculation about the extent to which brain scans are useful in studying brain function, Jourdain dutifully presents all available information. The topic of right-brain versus left-brain dominance is also addressed appropriately as Jourdain discusses each subject, and by the end of the book the reader feels competent and informed about the relative “jobs” of each side of the brain in relation to music.

One slight disappointment, which is interesting given the title of the book, was how little the topic of “ecstasy” was actually discussed. In a few short pages at the end of the book the subjects of “pleasure” and “ecstasy” were touched upon briefly, but were hardly mentioned throughout the rest of the book. This was an unexpected surprise, as the title implied that a greater proportion of the book would be spent discussing the emotional element of music. This is perhaps my greatest critique of Neurobiology and Behavior as well. Although a couple of class periods were spent debating the “mind” and “spirit,” and a few classes at the end of the course were dedicated to the sources of general “moods” and their evolutionary origins, I wished more attention had been paid to emotion, considering that many of the discomforts students felt when discussing brain = behavior were related to how “feelings” fit into that picture. Perhaps a class on the subject of hormones, or even the ever-so-controversial topic of religion, would have strengthened the course, and the book as well. The intense emotion that can be conveyed by music is perhaps its most interesting feature, and it is the quality which has kept the human race transfixed throughout history. One very intriguing thought Jourdain presented in the last chapter touched lightly on the subject of music and emotion, and I found the few short paragraphs on the issue to be some of the most fascinating ideas raised in the book. The idea proposed by Jourdain is that perhaps music is craved by human beings because it can speak to emotion in a way that words cannot. Is music the language of emotion? Perhaps, or perhaps emotion is simply too urgent or as Jourdain puts it, “immediate,” for mere words (p327).

Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy is an altogether delightful and informative book, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in, or even just curious about, neuroscience or musical theory; an excellent supplement to the course.



S.Dowling's picture


What other books would you recommend in the area of musicology,
the brain & ecstacy?