Reviewing Elena Mannes’ “The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the New Science of Song” (The Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2011), Tallis writes,
Ms. Mannes, an Emmy-winning granddaughter of the founders of New York’s Mannes School of Music, is inspired by the possibility that neuroscience may help us harness the potential of music to treat the sick and even to build more harmonious communities. Yet her investigation, based on a PBS documentary that Ms. Mannes produced, gives us little reason to expect that neuroscience will deliver on this promissory note.[ … ]
Given that we are not, in real life, served up the various qualities of music independently but experience them simultaneously, the experiments tell us little about the perception of sound, even less about the experience of music, and less still about the achievements of great music. Often scan-based localization of functions in the brain reminds one of a crooked real-estate agent leasing the same property simultaneously to dozens of different customers. This problem may be a reflection of the crudity of present techniques, but even if they were refined so that they could pinpoint the precise brain locations that light up in response to different components of music, we would still learn little about the source of the singular joy that certain melodies may bring. The musical experience is a totality that taps into memories and emotions and, beyond this, into the greater totality of private and shared worlds.
Much of Ms. Mannes’s argument rests on her claim that science has shown us that human beings are “hard-wired” to enjoy music. The hardest wiring is supposed to be found in those oldest parts of the brain—such as the striatum, a part of the basal ganglia—that we share with other beasts. An entire chapter is therefore devoted to the musical tastes of whales, elephants that play drums, a dancing cockatoo, songbirds that enjoy the sound of a clarinet and—Franz Kafka, in his story “Josephine,” did not make it up—the ultrasound songs of courting mice. On the strength of this evidence, I don’t think musicologists need worry that ethologists will encroach on their territory.
– “Striking a False Note: A profound source of shared emotion, music can’t heal our bodies or reveal how our minds work.”
Or sell many DVDs. Sources say that there is little hard wiring in the human brain anyway; it is rather plastic. There is no reason to believe that the brain is wired for music in particular. Maybe for fight or flight, sure, but ….
Tallis’s prose, on the other hand, is like a good lyric.
File under: “Spot the savannah with little Pavarottis. “