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Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy

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Biology 202
2006 Book Commentaries
On Serendip

Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy

Emily Lewis

For my book, I chose to read Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain. Originally, the book appealed to me simply because of the title, but when I began reading it, I knew it would thoroughly enhance my understanding of how music affects the brain.

I've always been interested in music. I've been singing since I was seven and playing cello and piano since I was eight. It always fascinated me that my orchestra could make people cry, smile, or just plain think all by playing different kinds of music. In this book, Jourdain sheds light on the reasons that music affects people, all the while making it accessible to absolutely anyone. Through the use of diagrams and anecdotes, Jourdain takes a highly scientific topic and makes it understandable to non-scientists, while still keeping the writings intellectual. Anyone who has ever tried to do this knows that this is no small feat.

Jourdain really knows how to capture an audience. When he uses examples, he chooses things that most people would know, or at least have heard of. For instance, he uses the Pink Panther theme as his main musical example. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think it is a fairly safe assumption that most people have heard of the Pink Panther in some capacity. This theme also makes for good, easy interpretation, as Jourdain describes the panther sneaking around, and shows how one comes to understand this in the given music.

Jourdain makes many points about ways music can affect certain people. For instance, some victims of brain damage can only move when they hear music. I find it absolutely fascinating that music an set action potentials in motion, and by doing so, take the place of the damaged piece of the victim's brain that initiates motion. He also tells the story of a poor, blind, dumb slave boy with a special talent—he could absorb a piece on a singe hearing, and then play it perfectly. Jourdain brings these people to life, making understanding almost unquestionable.

Jourdain also makes use of anecdotes. He uses ones from real life, such as that of Rosemary Brown, a psychic who claims to take dictation from long- dead composers. He also uses imaginative stories, such as that of the Phyxians, in chapter nine, who discover the probe Voyager 2. Through skillful segues, Jourdain connects the stories to real science, explaining how people understand music, and how music affects them.

In the course, I would have liked to hear more about music. It is such a powerful tool that can be used with any person capable of hearing it to evoke a desired response, though responses might not be the same for everyone. I would love to understand more about exactly why that works, although this book was very helpful. Music is universal. There is no one who does not listen to it. This, I think, is what makes it such a powerful communicative device, and so easily discussed.

I always knew music could affect people, but I feel much better having an understanding of how it works. I feel it would make a very interesting topic of class discussion.