A love of music rendered indigestible

Written By: Cary Gee
Published: December 8, 2017 Last modified: December 16, 2017

Why We Love Music
by John Powell
John Murray £9.99

How much of your day has been spent listening to music? You’re probably thinking not a lot. But according to this new book by British scientist (and musicologist) John Powell, on average one third of our daily activities are performed to some kind of soundtrack. Whether cruising around the supermarket (where the music played is likely to influence both the origin of and the price you pay for your wine) to having a tooth extracted (where the amount of pain can in part depend on your dentist’s song selection) music is everywhere.

Powell attempts to explain our emotional responses to different musical forms, beginning with tastes in music and what these reveal about your personality. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long before Powell’s style begins to grate. Remember that teacher or lecturer you once had, the one who secretly dreamed of being a stand-up comedian? The youthful professor who peppered his lectures with self-referencing jokes that failed to amuse? Powell is that man, and once the irritation begins to set in there’s no tune yet written capable of drowning it out.

From the role music (probably) played in the lives of hunter-gatherers,to the bond it can create between a mother and her new-born, much of Powell’s exposition is overly-technical and highly reductionist – I’ll certainly never listen to Baa Baa Black Sheep in quite the same way again – and herein lies another problem for the casual reader. Just how closely can you focus on the working parts of a thing before you reduce that thing to just its parts? That’s not to say the science behind the music we listen to doesn’t throw up many surprising results – not least an experiment recalled in the chapter ‘Don’t believe everything you hear’ that reveals even a majority of professional musicians and students are unable to tell whether they are playing in tune or not – just that, if anything, too much information can actually diminish, rather than enhance your listening experience.

While the chapter ‘Repetition, Surprises and Goosebumps’ is revelatory, explaining with just enough technicality why the human brain is more receptive to certain sounds than others, the ‘Fiddly Details’ at the end of the book are just that. Unless you’ve a burning desire to learn about the pressure patterns of a flute versus an oboe I recommend you skip the final few chapters. (In fact, if I’d not been reviewing it I’d have probably stopped a good while earlier).

While Powell is adept at debunking (other people’s) bad science, including claims that listening to classical music makes you more intelligent, many of his own conclusions are undone by his own silliness. He tells us that “A group of French researchers conducted a study which showed that a particular young man (just one?) was twice as successful at getting girls’ … phone numbers if he was holding a guitar case.” Powell concludes that “if being a musician was the best way to attract mates every teenage party would be clogged up with spotty hopefuls carrying xylophones and tubas”. Well, no. Because a tuba is patently not a guitar, and I don’t recall ever seeing a member of a boy-band, from the Beatles to One Direction, playing one.

“Music has the power to allieviate depression, reduce perceived pain, reduce boredom, aid relaxation, help you focus on a physical task, bond with others, reduce stress, improve your mood and fill your life with emotions from nostalgia to joy,” concludes Powell. A far cry then, from reading this book. Despite his undoubtedly best intentions, Dr Powell has taken one of my favourite subjects, and, through an overly-insistent ego, at times rendered the treatment of it virtually unreadable.

About Cary Gee

Cary Gee is a freelance journalist and Tribune columnist