I was fascinated by Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imaginations, by Robert Jourdain. Writing for the layperson, Jourdain presents a broad overview of how our brains and bodies process music, both in listening to and performing it. In the first half of the book he builds up from the basic processes chapter by chapter, starting with simple sound, then moving on to tones, melody, harmony, and rhythm. The later chapters discuss performing, composing, listening, understanding, and finally ecstasy. He presents the physics and neurology involved in music processing (as well as the evolution behind some of it) in easily understood terms. Much of the brain is not well understood, and he made sure to make that clear as well, often presenting multiple theories and the arguments for and against each one. Along the way he provides an overview of the history of (mostly Western) music, highlighting various famous and less well-known music personalities. His analysis of the way in which we process music is quite thorough and includes discussions on the relationships to math, language, and physical movement.
This book was perfect for me because it combined two things that particularly interest me: music and the brain. Music has been a part of my life as long as I can remember; I currently sing in a choir, take voice lessons, and dabble in piano and composition. In college I enjoyed my cognitive psychology class, but I never took neurobiology. However, every time I read a book about the brain I am reminded of how interesting I find it. The complexities and the things that it can do are mind-boggling. I also find that I can be deeply moved by both listening to and performing music, and thus I was extra-intrigued by the inclusion of “ecstasy” in the title of the book. Jourdain did not disappoint me. His musings on why music can be an experience of ecstasy made a lot of sense to me and I appreciated that they were based in science.
I do have a few criticisms of Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy. The first is his bias towards Western, classical music. He actually does mention non-Western music quite a bit, and I thought he made it quite clear that the Western scales are just one possible way of organizing tones. However, he definitely had an overall bias towards Western music (partly understandable, since that’s obviously what he knows). Additionally, there is a strong bias towards classical music. I do agree that contemporary popular music is not as complex as classical music, so this bias again makes sense in certain ways. However, I could see how it could bother some readers. My second criticism is that he focused too much on the virtuoso musicians and unusual cases such as idiot savants rather than on the everyday individual. This particularly bothered me in the section on composition, since I would like to understand what is going on in my brain when I write music – and I am certainly no Mozart.
Overall, I really enjoyed Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy, and I highly recommend it if you are interested in the topics. I take away from it a sense of awe at the complexities of our brain, a renewed understanding of the way in which our “mind” is a part of our physical body, and a deep appreciation for my own ability to experience music.