Critique of

Robert Jourdain's

Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures our Imagination

(William Morrow, NY, 1997)



In an inadequately-researched collection of opinions, recent psychoacoustic discoveries are evaluated through a conventional Eurocentric ear. Yet the simplistic thesis misses its target in trying to reveal the appeal of any musical genre of the last 400 years, with the possible exception of the lullaby (performed with the intention of boring a child into unconsiousness).

Rather than describing the taste of the public, the author's dubious generalizations must spring from his own imagination. Stylistic choices he describes as unpleasant or difficult for the listener pervade recordings of Frank Sinatra, Leonard Cohen, and Plácido Domingo that have found an international market for decades.

Even a composer or producer of elevator music should think twice about using this author's ideas as a guide to channeling creativity.

As general reviews of this book are available here and here, we will pinpoint specific passages.

Location Author's claim (quote) Our response
p59 ¶2 "You'd meet with only laughter if you requested a copyright on a rhythmic pattern or a harmonic progression." Is it that easy to trigger the funnybone of a bureaucrat? Can any reader relate a personal experience? (Send anecdotes to xenharmonium@gmail.com.)

As rhythmic patterns and harmonic progressions are elements of music, the music that uses them can be copyrighted. However, the number of each is quite small compared to the number of melodies, making it unlikely that any new use will be original. Nevertheless, an arrangement of an old melody with new harmony can be copyrighted, as long as all the material used is licensed, in public domain, or original.
p77 ¶1 "The obvious argument in favor is that, by encouraging the overlap of overtones, the Pythagorean scale is only one that complements the overtone series." In music, a complement is generally understood to be "an interval that completes an octave when added to a given interval". Does Pythagorean tuning complete or reinforce overtones?

By halving the octave, Pythagorean tuning favors only dyadic harmony, in decline since the Renaissance. Just intonation extends this courtesy to chords.
p80 ¶1 "The Gestaltists formulated a number of rules describing how we make sense of the world visually, rules that work just as well in explaining how we assemble melodic fragments into whole tunes. For example, the Law of Complements states that our minds prefer complete patterns. Melodic skips interrupt smooth contour, and so there are few of them." According to Jung's Law of Complements, the presence of any element indicates the presence of its opposite. If preferred adjacent scale steps are opposites, can we assume that pitches separated by a tritone have much in common? (Considered a dissonant "devil's interval" in the Middle Ages, the tritone has been a staple of European harmony since the dominant seventh chord was accepted by audiences in the 17th century.)

Skips can add interest to a melody without creating the disorienting effect claimed by the author. For example, "Sentimental Journey" (by Bud Green, Les Brown, and Ben Homer) makes heavy use of skips (mi-do-mi-do-mi-do-mi-do-mi-do). Bill Haley made a hit out of "Rock Around the Clock" by changing steps (do-re-mi) to skips (do-mi-sol).
p85-86 ¶2 "What makes a good melody? . . . If you compare these rules to a favorite melody, you'll find they almost always apply." The rules "almost always" apply? If a good melody departs from the author's rules, what makes him consider it good? If rules are inconsistent in their application, then what significance can we attach to them? Does their impirical prevalence merely result from the law of averages? Can bad melodies follow the same rules? If the author has not found the key to his own taste, how can he generalize to humanity at large?
p85-86 ¶2 (1) "Nearly all the notes in the melody are to be chosen from the seven-note scale upon which the melody is based. When any of the remaining five chromatic notes are used, they generally should appear in positions that are unaccented and unemphasized so as not to undermine the prevailing harmony." What significance is there to unequal incidence of pitches? Even if pitches are chosen at random from a set of twelve, it is almost mathematically certain that the most prevalent seven, falling into a scale of some type, will comprise a majority.

Of course, there is order in the arts. In large parts of the world (China, West Africa, Japan, Andes, Indonesia) pentatonic scales are employed all or part of the time. A melody based on five tones is unlikely to exceed seven. Thus, the vast incidence of pentatonic scales both supports the author's argument by inclusion and undercuts his choice of an optimal number.

Limitation to seven has rarely been evident in European music. Even in the Renaissance, minor modes employed a leading 7th tone (as in "Greensleeves"), for a total of eight notes.

How do we count glides found in various musical cultures? Are they ornaments of one note or combinations of several? Without a way to classify widespread phenomena, we cannot tell whether a tune employing them follows or defies the rules.

Modern popular music has moved beyond satisfaction with seven notes. Blue notes have been a jazz staple for decades. Antonio Carlos Jobim (widely considered the most significant popular composer of the late 20th century) frequently used twelve tones, as in "Retrato em Branco e Preto (Portrait in Black and White)".
p85-86 ¶2 (2) "Most of a melody's notes should be adjacent scale notes. Jumps should be few, and large jumps rare." Skips and jumps are featured in numerous popular songs, old and new:
  • "I Say a Little Prayer" (music by Burt Bacharach) includes major ninth jumps in both directions;
  • "Nessun Dorma" from Turandot (music by Giacomo Puccini) includes octave jumps in both directions;
  • "Tara's Theme" from "Gone with the Wind" (music by Max Steiner) begins with an upward octave jump;
  • "Over the Rainbow" from "The Wizard of Oz" (music by Harold Arlen) begins with an upward octave jump;
  • "Bali Hai" from South Pacific (music by Richard Rodgers) begins with an upward octave jump;
  • "The Christmas Song" (by Mel Torme) begins with an upward octave jump;
  • "Adeste Fidelis" includes an upward octave jump;
  • "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music (by Steven Sondheim) includes a downward octave jump;
  • "More" from "Mondo Cane" (music by Riz Ortolani and Nino Oliviero) includes downward and upward major seventh jumps in the first line, followed by downward and upward minor seventh jumps in the second line;
  • The theme from "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (music by John Williams) includes a downward octave jump;
  • "Somewhere" from West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein) begins with an upward minor seventh jump;
  • The Aria from "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5" (music by Heitor Villa-Lobos) includes an upward minor seventh jump a few notes from the beginning of the vocal part; and
  • "What's New Pussycat" from Casino Royale (music by Burt Bacharach) includes an upward minor seventh jump.


In 48 notes of "Ach! du lieber Augustin", there are only 17 steps to adjacent scale degrees, less than the total of skips and jumps.

How does this rule apply to pentatonic scales? When adjacent scale notes are separated by a minor third, is the interval considered a step or a skip? As the author provides inadequate definition, there is no way to verify the applicability of his rule for non-heptatonic scales.
p85-86 ¶2 (3) "To avoid monotony, individual notes should not be repeated too much, particularly at emphasized positions in a melody." Some popular melodies contain long sequences of repeated notes:
  • 35 iterations in "Night and Day" (by Cole Porter);
  • 32 iterations in "One-note Samba" (music by Antonio Carlos Jobim);
  • 12 iterations in Beethoven's 7th Symphony, 2nd Movement;
  • 9 iterations in "Julia" (music by John Lennon).
  • 8 iterations in Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony, 1st Movement;
  • 7 iterations in "Jingle Bells" (by James Pierpoint);
  • 7 iterations in "Downtown" (by Tony Hatch);
  • 7 iterations in "Cuando Calienta el Sol" (by Rafael Gastón Pérez).
p85-86 ¶2 (4) "Harmonic resolutions, such as the cadences that we'll consider in the next chapter, should occur at points of rhythmic stress in a melody." In Latin American music, are downbeats or accented upbeats considered more stressful?
p85-86 ¶2 (5) "Similarly, rhythmic accentuations should highlight the melody's contour. Changes in melodic direction should generally fall at rhythmically important junctures." In Latin American music, are downbeats or accented upbeats considered more rhythmically important?
p85-86 ¶2 (6) "A melody should have only one instance of its highest tone, and preferably also of its lowest tone. The highest tone should never be a tone that naturally tends toward a higher one (such as the seventh note of the melody's scale)." For numbering the tones, we will assume that the author means an upward scale, rather than the ancient Greek downward scales.

The seventh note of a natural minor scale tends downward as much as upward.

The highest note in "Summertime" (music by George Gershwin) appears at least six times in the melody, starting with the first note.
p85-86 ¶2 (7) "Jumps should always land on one of the seven scale tones, not on one of the five chromatic tones. The ear always hears a jump as emphasized (that is, the brain is more attentive to jumps, since they define the boundaries of submelodies), so jumping to a chromatic tone violates the rule about never emphasizing these tones." How true is this rule? (Send illustrative examples to xenharmonium@gmail.com.)
p85-86 ¶2 (8) "Conversely, a melody should never leap from a chromatic tone. The dissonance of a chromatic tone creates tension in need of release. Yet jumps increase tension, and so contradict this need." Doesn't a jump to the tonic relieve tension?

How true is this rule? (Send illustrative examples to xenharmonium@gmail.com.)
p123 There is a kind of rhythm we generate all day long, the rhythm of organic movement. . . . For want of a standard term, call it phrasing. By definition in music, motives are grouped into phrases, phrases into periods, periods into movements.
p130 "One reason that a Baroque composer like Vivaldi has such popularity among those who otherwise reject classical music is that the phrasing of his music is completely obvious, and so it is easy for a brain to spot its component parts. Beethoven is harder, and Wagner much harder still." The basis of the premise is unconvincing. Wagner's overtures to "Lohengrin" and "Tannhëuser are easily broken into phrases. Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and Wagner's "Wedding March" and are more widely and more easily sung by amateurs than any of Vivaldi's works, including "The Four Seasons".
p176 ¶1 "The piano is the ideal instrument for a composer, letting him play several voices at once, and offering a magnificent repertoire for study and experimentation." Although useful, pianos can't do everything. Organs have greater range and the ability to hold a note indefinitely without decay. Strings permit glides, microtones, double stops, and a smooth crescendo on a held note.
p208 ¶2 "But our bodies display a far more complex geometry, with limbs sticking out, and sublimbs (fingers and toes and various unmentionables) jutting out further still." Because the author has chosen to be photographed from the shoulders up, we see no evidence of unmentionables that protrude beyond his arms and legs. This must be another phenomenon imagined by the author but perceived by no one else.
p208 ¶3 "The motor system doesn't exist to twitch individual muscles; it's there to carry out complete movements encompassing many muscles. This fact is demonstrated by a simple experiment. With palms turned upward, wiggle a finger and watch how muscles and tendons move throughout your forearm. This means that for the motor cortex, a finger is as large and elaborate as a forelimb." The muscles the author observes may be the only ones involved. For lack of room, there are few in the hand. Tendons pass through the wrist and hand, connecting bones in the fingers to muscles in the forearm that pull them back anf forth.
p255 ¶1 "Listening to cool jazz as if it were country and western is a big mistake. But we're more likely to muddle through than we are with Indian or Chinese music; hardly anyone crosses the abyss to full appreciation of the music of a distant culture." Many Chinese and Japanese musicians seem to have straddled this divide. Some folk tunes they bring from their own cultures are well received in others. After charting in Japanese, "[I] shall walk looking up" (also known as "Sukiyaki") with music by Hachidai Nakamura has since been recorded numerous times in the English and Spanish languages.

The music in between is not at all abysmal. Borodin's Tony-winning music for "Kismet" used Central Asian folk music as source material. Likewise, Khachaturian's suites for "Gayaneh", "Masquerade", and "Spartacus" were based on Transcaucasian folk music. There are even Tuvan throat-singers on world tours.
p260 ¶1 "For instance, each successive note in a scale is readily anticipated and provides no new information, so scales are boring. In contrast, a sudden shift to a remote key is full of surprises and gives the listener something to respond to, increasing the information a composition conveys." Scales with augmented intervals give melodies an exotic sound. Numerous jazz standards with scalar melodies (such as "Miserlou") were originally chromatic folk songs.

The amount of information perceived by the listener can vary depending on the attention and familiarity brought to the process. One need not perceive the structural complexity of a Bach fugue to enjoy the immediate harmonic progression.
p260 ¶3 "But research shows that it takes hard rock to drive out rats (as General Noriega learned when the U.S. Army dislodged him from his hiding place by blasting heavy metal)." Calling a Central American potentate a rodent is a gratuitous insult (to both the general and rats) that lowers the level of discourse and distracts the reader. The editor should have omitted this cheap shot.
p261 ¶3 "We 'take' a certain kind of music to steer our central nervous systems toward a particular condition: hard rock as the frenzied rush of cocaine; easy-listening genres as a martini; cheery supermarket Muzak as a pick-me-up cup of coffee; cool jazz as a laid-back marijuana high; the far-flung landscapes of classical music as the fantasy realm of psychedelics." If they desire a psychedelic experience, then why do so many classical music fans choose only to imbibe of wine or brandy? Why has LSD been associated with acid rock and Deadheads? Why did Cole Porter write about cocaine? While there may be parallels between art and drugs as lenses for viewing the world, the specific analogies need refinement.
p262 ¶2 "Some social critics have judged the symphony orchestra to be the epitome of capitalist oppression. . . . As ruling aristocrat, the conductor leads compliant musicians, who in turn lead a compliant audience." A capitalist economy is run by the bourgeoisie (middle class), not the hereditary aristocracy (upper class). Perhaps a symphony orchestra represents the imperial rococo society of its 18th-century origin. Yet the height of aristocracy should be the feudal Middle Ages, which left us little listening pleasure aside from a capella chants, anonymous folk songs, and a handful of Christmas carols.
p264 ¶2 "If an audience leaves a movie with clashing impressions, think how much wider must be the gulf left by a concert." Cinema is a conceptual art, portraying ideas; interpretation of a film can vary depending on the knowledge and experience of the individual viewer (although directors often manage to communicate universal themes). Music is non-conceptual, involving minimal reference to the real world. It would be interesting to compare the effect of various genres of music upon children of different cultures.
p286 ¶2 "Nonetheless, nature cruelly provides neuroscience with unwilling human subjects. Every year, millions of human beings lose fragments of cortex through strokes or accidents or gunshot wounds (trench warfare was an especial boon to neuroscience)." Why did nature wait until the invention of firearms to produce gunshot wounds?
p316 ¶2 "Opposite every kind of pleasure is a kind of pain: the body's agonies against the body's raptures, biting cold against caressing warmth, bitterness against deliciousness, stenches against fragrances, ugliness against beauty, grief and anxiety against joy and serenity." Extremes of either hot or cold tend to be unpleasant. Hints of sour or bitter are interesting, but extremes are caustic. It is possible to get too much of a good thing or just enough of a bad thing.
p318 ¶0 "Conversely, perfectly fulfilled anticipations are resolved without friction, and this resolution is what we call pleasure." Humor arises from surprise. The eruption of laughter is stronger if you haven't heard the punchline before.
p327 ¶1 "However our bodily representations of music are achieved, they may be responsible for boosting our pleasure all the more by causing our brains to churn out the opiate-like endorphins we considered earlier." Does the author mean to say that pleasure-inducing endorphins can only be produced by the subject's physical activity? That would make passive enjoyment difficult. Despite being expected to remain still for an hour at a time, audiences derive pleasure from symphony concerts.
p330 ¶3 "A flock of squawking birds produces all of the individual notes of symphony, but not in an ordered hierarchy of groupings." A flock usually consists of single species of bird, unlikely to produce an orchestra's range.
p331 ¶4 "New technology has always played a role in propelling music toward innovation, and we live in a period of rapid change in music technology, change that follows a century-long lull." When was this alleged lull? We are unable to find so much as a 30-year gap between these inventions:
p332 ¶1 "Could the music of the future be based on yet-undiscovered constructs? In terms of our traditional conception of music, probably not. Countless thousands of composers have spent their lives searching for new devices, and the rate of innovation has slowed to the point where it is almost impossible to concoct a worthwhile harmonic progression or metrical pattern that has not been heard before." Adding notes to the scale increases the harmonic palette. In Twelve Microtonal Etudes for Electronic Music Media (1980), Easley Blackwood explores the previously untapped harmonic properties of equal-temperament scales that range from 13 to 24 notes.

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