BOOK REVIEW / The food of love that fills the brain: 'Music and the Mind' - Anthony Storr: HarperCollins, 16.99

Frank McLynn
Thursday 31 December 1992 01:02
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A visitor from another galaxy would find music the most puzzling of all human activities. The musical genius of a Mozart has defied rational analysis to such an extent that people have been inclined to speak of the composer as a mere vessel, through which a gift from a benign creator passes to mankind.

Levi-Strauss put it well: 'Since music is the only language with the contradictory attributes of being at once intelligible and untranslatable, the musical creator is a being comparable to the gods, and music itself the supreme mystery of the science of man.'

In Music and the Mind, Anthony Storr sets himself the steep task of solving this mystery, and elects for what in philosophical terms would be called an idealist solution - that music originates in the human brain, not in the natural world. He argues that there are innate structures in the brain predisposing us to music, and examines various theories of its origin, only to discard them in turn.

Since music is 'species-specific', Storr suggests, it cannot be connected with bird-song; nor will Darwin's idea that music preceded speech and was used for mating calls cover all cases. As for the notion that music evolved as a form of communication (the singing voice has greater carrying power than the speaking voice), it seems like a misguided attempt to derive all music from the yodel. Nor does Storr have any time for the favourite Victorian theory that music developed from adult speech; instead he opts for the exchanges between mother and infant as the necessary condition for music, though by no means its final cause.

Storr is also good on the relationship between music and the brain, and points out that certain music has the power to induce epileptic fits. He argues that serial music, because of its lack of repetition, taxes the brain to the utmost, and that there is a relationship between tonality and cerebral structure. The sonata form is the equivalent of a story structure in literature: in every civilisation, the form in which stories are found consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, and the gloss put on it by Jean-Luc Godard ('not necessarily in that order') is no more than typical Parisian posturing.

Storr devotes a good part of his book to an examination of theories on music held by the great philosophers and social theorists. Plato, for example, thought that music was a suitable case for censorship. Storr rightly cautions us that aesthetic theories, unlike those relating to the physical universe, do not date, so that Plato and Aristotle's insights into the nature of music are as valid today as when first uttered.

Some interesting observations on the difference between the 'Apollonian' music of Haydn and the 'Dionysiac' mode of Wagner give rise to a lively discussion of the very different artistic theories of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Jung and Freud, although the judicious analysis is vitiated by Storr's compulsion to have a go at his old enemy Freud. No one takes seriously the idea of a love of music as being mere infantile regression, and here Storr is tilting at windmills.

Like all art forms, music is great when it deals with universals - when it expresses not love or passion for a particular individual, but love or passion in general. Storr argues convincingly that there is something deeper about hearing than seeing - even film- makers, after all, rely on music to make the maximum impact.

The 'universal' aspect of music aligns it with mathematics, an analogy that recurs frequently in this book. Both are distinguished by inevitability, economy and unexpectedness; the difference is that mathematics cannot stimulate mass emotion - one would be tempted to say individual emotion, either, were it not for the example of Bertrand Russell.

Plato thought the path to ultimate reality lay via mathematics, but this book is more sympathetic to Schopenhauer's view that music might be the key. Although Music and the Mind does not scale the heights of Storr's Solitude, it is - like all of his books - lucid, compassionate and wise.

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