Surprising summer reads for classical music lovers

by Emily Michael, Special to MPR
May 27, 2014

If you're a serious musician or music lover who has decided to read more about music, where should you look?

Perhaps you ask your former violin teacher for some recommended reading. She suggests the text from her two-semester survey of music history, an 800-page volume with columns of cramped font and hundreds of footnotes. Such hefty academic texts repel even the most enthusiastic musicians and aficionados: serious music lovers don't always want serious texts. Fortunately there now exists a rich supply of music-related nonfiction written for the general, intelligent reader.

You may choose to begin with Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, written by Oliver Sacks. A neuroscientist who regularly contributes to The New Yorker, Sacks explores music-related neurological phenomena such as musical seizures, brainworms, perfect pitch, and amusia — a condition that causes listeners to perceive music as unpleasant or disruptive noise. In this text, Sacks combines personal and medical narratives, describing his love of Bach and his childhood in a highly musical household alongside the neurological conditions of his patients. Musicophilia is a work of literary fusion, displaying Sacks's ability to combine medical research with music history and terminology.

Early in his text, Sacks references a claim from the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker: music is "auditory cheesecake" — delectable but frivolous. Musicophilia challenges this claim by describing the biological basis of musical experiences. Within the text, Sacks recommends further reading on the side of music's evolutionary importance: Anthony Storr's Music and the Mind and Steven Mithen's The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body. Robert Jourdain's Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy is also relevant to the evolutionary debate; his book offers a meticulous step-by-step description of our processes of musical perception and its effects on our emotions.

For a more organized and less narrative approach to the neuroscience of music, try This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin. A producer who earned his doctorate in neuroscience, Levitin announces his desire to create a text free of jargon and accessible to non-musicians. This Is Your Brain on Music travels systematically through musical concepts — sound, melody, rhythm, harmony — before delivering a detailed explanation of how the brain processes musical stimuli. Levitin's references to popular music outnumber his classical allusions, but his book is no less rigorous for its contemporary examples.

Both Levitin and Sacks offer a detailed and scientific approach to an art that often strikes us as mysterious and inexplicable. A text that openly discusses the intuitive and mystical components of everyday musicianship is Victor Wooten's memoir, The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth. Like Levitin, Wooten organizes his book around a series of theoretical musical concepts, but he approaches these from the musician's perspective, offering advice on practice and performance.

Wooten's memoir is far from technical or tedious; in the text, he explores music with the help of Michael, a psychically gifted teacher who randomly shows up in his apartment. Michael introduces Wooten to several other musicians, and Wooten collects meaningful lessons on music and life from each encounter. Though his text is whimsical and outrageous at times, Wooten builds a coherent narrative with a warm voice, recognizing that learning to play better depends entirely upon learning to listen and respond to music with deep gratitude.

Music science and mysticism converge in David Rothenberg's Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song. Rothenberg, a clarinetist and philosophy professor, emphasizes the collaborative heart of music by taking his clarinet into forests, gardens, and aviaries to play with some of the world's oldest musicians: songbirds. Most animal scientists have found logical causes for bird songs: attracting and recognizing mates, defending territory, signaling danger or sounding the all-clear. But Rothenberg advances the controversial hypothesis that birds sing on the side of auditory cheesecake; they do it because they love it.

Like humans, birds can echo, develop, and invent within an enormous repertoire of melodies, riffing on the songs they've already heard. By highlighting the similarities between human and nonhuman musicians, Rothenberg's text completes a circle of inquiry, traveling from how we understand and make music to why we make it.

With neurobiology, ecology, and philosophy, these authors showcase our changing attitudes towards music. Marked by dedication, meticulous research, and accessible prose, their texts will help you forge deeper connections with the art you love.

Emily Michael is a writer, musician, and English instructor living in Jacksonville, Florida. When she's not involved in academic pursuits, she works with blind and visually impaired people and their families, teaching self-advocacy and independent living skills.


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