BOOK REVIEW / Music hath charms, and other plonking platitudes: 'Music and the Mind' - Anthony Storr: HarperCollins, 16.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'THE properties of things we really care about are very often not the ones that you can have deep and revealing scientific theories about,' writes the American philosopher Jerry Fodor. 'That is, I suppose, why so many people hate science.' It also explains why many people hate books about music, even if - especially if - they care deeply about music itself.

The genre tends to divide into two categories: scholarly works, written in uncompromisingly technical language from a strictly objective standpoint, and subjective 'appreciations' which at best amount to the sort of things people say on Desert Island Discs and at worst sound like someone trying to describe inchoate religious beliefs. To try to span the two is the intellectual equivalent of ropewalking over Niagara. The feat has been achieved, by musically literate writers - notably Bernard Shaw in Music in London - and by musicians like Hans Keller who also happen to be gifted stylists. Few readers find themselves in total agreement with all of Shaw's or Keller's opinions, but most come away with a clearer sense of their own, as well as a heightened sense of the excitement and significance of musical art.

The three prerequisites for success would appear to be: strong opinions, a thorough knowledge of musical theory and practice, and a memorable prose style. Anthony Storr possesses none of these, and is modest about his musical talents ('playing the piano and the viola has been very rewarding to me, if not to others,' he admits). But as a psychiatrist and theorist of the creative process, he might have been expected to shed some light on the 'attempt to discover what it is about music that so profoundly affects us'.

A project of such scope would seem to demand a comparative study of the role and effect of music in different cultures, but it soon transpires that 'music' means 'Western art music' and 'us' means 'people like us'. Storr's methodology is of the kind favoured by Lord Rees-Mogg: quote an impressive variety of DWEMs (dead white European males) and fill in any gaps by generalising from your own experience.

The result is a leisurely ramble around various aspects of the subject - music, origins of; effects, mental and physical; Western tonality, the natural basis of - with the author directing our attention to the views of previous commentators from Plato to Proust before coming down in favour of a conclusion so innocuous that it would be impossible to disagree with. Storr fights his usual round of shadow-boxing with Freud, an intellectual spectacle akin to watching David Owen tick off Karl Marx, and there is a goodish introduction to Schopenhauer's influential views on music. Apart from that, the book consists of a patter of introductory tags - 'As Charles Rosen writes', 'As Stravinsky affirms' - punctuated at regular intervals by plonking platitudes: 'The creative process depends on both conscious and unconscious mental functions'; 'The greatest compositions are highly individual and usually identifiable as the work of a particular composer'; 'Every creative artist is to some degree constrained by the Zeitgeist', and so on.

Storr concludes with the ringing affirmation that music is 'an irreplaceable, undeserved, transcendental blessing' which 'has incomparably enriched my life'. No doubt, but people can feel the same way about needlework or fishing. There is little here to help those who share Storr's love of music to understand that experience, and still less to communicate it to those as yet unblessed.

Comments