The Music Instinct, By Philip Ball

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The Independent Culture

Music goes everywhere that people go, and further. Not only has it gone into space along with astronauts, but it is on its way to the stars as part of a sampler of human culture aboard the Voyager probes.

If any extra-terrestrial life forms ever play the disc, they will realise that humans can't do without music. They will be able to figure out much about how music is put together, and they may even have a few hunches about why. But, judging by Philip Ball's painstaking investigations, it would be an advanced civilisation indeed that could comprehend music in all its elusive nuances of pitch and purpose. Although music is universal, it defies analysts to identify universals within it.

The octave stands out as an exception. Music everywhere seems to recognise something special about a pitch double the frequency of another, the lower note's first overtone. Apart from that, however, notions of what is harmonious are elastic.

Intervals between pitches with frequencies in the ratio of three to two – fifths – feature in Indian and Chinese music as well as being considered harmonious in Western music. Yet this is a historical development rather than a mathematical universal: a thousand years ago, European musicians did not regard fifths as anything special. Octaves aside, the world's music cannot be pinned to one simple mathematical frame.

Ball's title appears to be a reference to the psychologist Steven Pinker's book, The Language Instinct. There's another resonance in the subtitle, "how music works and why we can't do without it", with Pinker's How The Mind Works. In the latter work, Pinker dubbed music "auditory cheesecake", depicting it as a cunning human technology for generating pleasure from neural systems that had evolved to respond to other kinds of stimuli.

Ball contrasts this hedonistic view with the traditional belief that music, like other forms of art, ennobles the spirit. He does not choose between these views, and indeed seems to find them more resonant than claims that music actually is an instinct, or a means to pursue more basic instincts such as choosing mates.

Ball points out that facile references to Jimi Hendrix's sexual successes – "theorizing by celebrity anecdote", as he puts it – do not amount to an evolutionary theory of music. But sexual selection need not be all about solos or stardom. Round prehistoric campfires it could have been negative rather than positive, eliminating the males who were too uncoordinated, unhealthy or poorly integrated into their groups to be able to play their part in performances.

Avoiding losers might well be a better strategy than yearning after winners. Musical competence would certainly serve as a telling indicator of fitness, with its demands upon the senses, the muscles and the all-important ability to interact with others. Ball is not apt to run with trains of thought like these, though, or with speculations on whether music and language might have evolved together. This is partly because he is staunchly scientific and likes hypotheses that are testable rather than ones that are merely plausible. It is also because what really absorbs him is how music works.

Most of the book is devoted to the minutiae of scales, intervals, beats and what the brain makes of them all. The phrase "organised sound" not only gets around the difficulty of agreeing what counts as music – traditionally Western commentators thought of their music as civilised sound, and the rest as noise – but can also serve to underline that the organising is done by the listener's brain as much as by the performers. It imposes its own forms upon sound, among other things "binding" the harmonics present in almost all sounded notes together, so that they are heard as single tones rather than chords. The octave interval emerges as a special relationship from the binding between notes and their first harmonics.

Although Ball affirms that almost everybody is musical, and points out that very few people really are deaf to differences in tone, readers will find it easier to follow him if they know their way around a stave. Musical samples, played by the author, are provided on the book's website to accompany the text. His examples are mainly from classical music and rock, but his horizons are broad and he is continually aware of other musical traditions.

One of his great strengths, besides the breadth and solidity of his knowledge, is his consistent refusal to turn intriguing but incomplete evidence into glib take-home stories. Instead, he is meticulous in his attention to both the details and the limits on what they can tell us at present. The book is labelled "popular science" on the back: publishing would be a far better place if popular science books were all as truly scientific in spirit as this one.

Themes do emerge, however: that no scale is more natural than any other, and that responses to music appear to be learned rather than reflexive. That goes for the change from major to minor. It would not be universally acknowledged, pace Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel, that D minor is the saddest of keys.

Even in Europe, folk music can use minor intervals for happy moods. But the moods of foreign music are not entirely opaque. People can often work out whether music from unfamiliar cultures is meant to be happy or sad.

The book leaves less of a sense of why we can't do without music, perhaps because it concentrates so hard on the interior experience of music - what the 19th-century theorist Hermann Helmholtz called the sensations of tone. Music is a form of communication and of social interaction. It brings people together in whatever they are doing: ritual, celebration, courtship or labour. It co-ordinates their actions and shapes them.

Whistling while you work, you give yourself a musical accompaniment, as if another person is sharing your rhythm with you. The simplest but also the most fundamental reason why we can't do without music may be that wherever we are, teenage bedroom, outer space or Radio 4's desert island, it keeps us company.

Marek Kohn's 'A Reason for Everything: natural selection and the English imagination' is published by Faber & Faber

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