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Book Commentary/Review – Music, the Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain May 17, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, music, Music the Brain and Ecstacy, Robert Jourdain.
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(This is the third of what will be a series of commentaries about those books a series of seven or so books about the nature of music. The first two commentaries of this series were about the books Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks, and This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin. This series has been triggered as a result of  my rediscovery of the love of creating and performing music. There is definitely a spiritual connection to this rediscovery, evidenced by my recent release of “Issa Music” and my posts about mystical/spiritual aspects of the music of the progressive rock group Yes (The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes: Introduction to “The Revealing Science of God—Dance of the Dawn” from “Tales from Topographic Oceans”  and The Poetry of (the Progressive Rock Group) Yes). This further relates to spiritual meditations with the theme of more than one path to God, and the possible coming together of both physics and metaphysics I and II).

Robert Jourdain’s Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy is a definitive overview of how music affects human beings, a masterpiece of communicating the current state of knowledge of key disciplines, organized in a clear, accessible manner. As I’ve indicated in my two previous posts on this issue, I am interested in how the physics of music may relate to metaphysics. If I was to devise a reading list for this subject, I would suggest Jourdain’s book as the first to be read, for its overview qualities. The Sacks and Levitin books would be better read after an overview.

The key to the effectiveness of Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy is its elegantly simple organization. The sections are laid out in a continuum: “(1) from sound… (2) to tone… (3) to melody… (4) to harmony… (5) to rhythm… (6) to composition… (7) to performance… (8) to listening… (9) to understanding… (10) to ecstasy. Each section contains a thorough discussion of the subject of the title, filling in details of the concept while pointing forward to the next link in the chain.

Some highlights with particular attention to bridging physics with metaphysics in music: 

1) From sound…

  • Jourdain brings us the miracle of the ear and how it senses the vibrations that are sound, and takes them into the brain. He discusses comparisons with sight, and how the processes are different. Jourdain also discusses how other creatures “hear” differently. 

2) From sound… to tone…

  • He discusses how every tone is essentially a chord because of the overtone series.
  • He also discusses timbre and loudness.
  • At the end of this chapter, we discover that the “auditory cortex does not consider individual sounds in isolation. Instead, it always interprets sounds within the context of what has preceded.” 

3) From sound… to tone… to melody…

  • Humans have considered “songs” important from well before civilization. Jourdain tells us pre-historic human societies also considered songs to be “privately owned,” to be “traded, bequeathed or bestowed as gifts.” So this appreciation of a musical line, a melody, appears to be wired into human beings.
  • He concludes music requires “tones of fixed pitch and duration.”
  • Octave equivalents are universal to all scales in any culture. This is almost certainly derivative of the overtones series, a given from the physical nature of sound, a fundamental of physics.
  • He also reaches back into what can be found in history to conclude that roughly the same pitch relations come out in “widely dispersed cultures” over time and location. An Egyptian flute of antiquity produced “much the same sequence of scale tones we use in the West today.” This makes music a possible universal form of communication. He goes on to discuss a possible physics basis for this—halving octaves going through perfect fifths (the next tone in the overtone series after the octaves) creating a cycle of fifths that in essence produces the twelve tones of a chromatic scale— C: C-G-D-A-E-B-F#/Gb-Db-Ab-Eb-Bb-F. He discusses problems with the Pythagorean scale, and how Western music came up with the “well-tempered” scale, just slightly out of tune, to give us our current keyboard white-and-black key chromatic scale. He also looks at other cultures, and concludes that twelve tones seems to be a limit for notes within the universal octave equivalents. Many cultures have fewer. (I have noted in other books that some cultures boast scales of more than the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. However, I have also seen in the reading that the actual perceived tones don’t seem to exceed the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. I expect to be reading about the precise nature of the music from other cultures in some of my upcoming reading and will discuss this in future posts.)
  • Jourdain also discusses the “ideal melody,” and possible rules for creating it. But there can be no such thing, as individual tastes vary, as do cultural comfort zones. The best that can be done is to suggest some principles. 

4) From sound… to tone… to melody… to harmony…

  • After a brief turn West to discuss “classical tonality,” Jourdain turns to dissonance and its possible origins in the overtone series. But not everything about dissonance, and the major chord, considered consonant by our ears, can be explained by the overtone series. Jourdain points to the half step as a dissonant interval. But its intervalic reciprocal, the major seventh, creates a sweet, by some ears almost saccharine, sound. (My composition teacher in college, Stanworth Beckler, hated it and discouraged my use of it whenever he found it in my writing.) When filled in with the third and fifth to create a major seventh chord, it comes to our cultural ears as a sweet, warm sound. (Listen to the opening of “Color My World” by the rock band Chicago for an arpeggio of a series of those chords in a sweet-sounding context.) And Jourdain points out that “harmony needs dissonance like a good story needs suspense.” He concludes that “our brains are probably not tailored to triad’s, but… triads are a particularly fruitful and flexible way of organizing simultaneous tones…”

 5) From sound… to tone… to melody… to harmony… to rhythm…

  • Jourdain looks across cultures to find variations in how humans process rhythm, and explains the distinctions among rhythm, meter and phrasing.
  • Memory and anticipation play essential roles in sensing rhythm in music.
  • He concludes that the idea of rhythm in music based on a heartbeat is probably not a causal relationship. He goes on to discuss other bodily rhythms. I think heartbeat alone probably is too simple to relate to the human affinity for rhythm in music. But in my own opinion, I think there are various bodily rhythms—heartbeat, breathing (both with fluctuating tempos depending on exertion), walking/running, chewing, sexual activity—all of these and more serve to wire into humans the concept of rhythm. So music encompasses rhythm because rhythm is so ingrained into human existence.

 6) From sound… to tone… to melody… to harmony… to rhythm… to composition…

  • Here, Jourdain discusses mainly Western composers over the last four or five centuries. He discusses inspiration and tries to delve into the creative process of composers. I found this the least insightful section of a book generally filled with incredibly helpful insights. I think this is because of the Western “art music/classical music/concert music” focus on the individual composer. It may be that this way of creating and experiencing music is not the norm for humans, and hasn’t been for most of our existence. He also makes the peculiar statement that no link between talent for music and mathematics has been demonstrated. I don’t know about this issue experimentally. But my own experience is that they are absolutely integrated. I was a bit of a numbers prodigy as a child, learning addition/attraction/multiplication/division well before my peers and before the usual ages. I still delight in doing many varied number operations in my head. I know this talent for numbers led directly to my ability to write concert pieces for jazz band and concert band while in my teens, without a composition lesson. I developed my own numerical system for the relations between musical notes before learning conventional harmony systems in college. It was math/arithmetic that related these notes/intervals/chords together.

 7) From sound… to tone… to melody… to harmony… to rhythm… to composition… to performance…

  • Jourdain takes us through the mechanics of performance—what parts of the brain are involved, from the competent musician to the virtuoso. He also discusses music savants, but cautions musicians not to be too envious of their abilities as the performance process involves a number of areas of the brain, and savants are missing competence in areas that would allow them to be complete musicians, with full expression of the music, as opposed curiosities, circus performers, those who can render music performance as if it is an athletic accomplishment. 

8) From sound… to tone… to melody… to harmony… to rhythm… to composition… to performance… to listening…

  • Jourdain discusses how for the first time in human existence, music surrounds us. It is no longer just a special event at a concert hall or for a feast or celebration, or a communal ritual around the campfire. For this reason we risk trading real listening for just hearing, for involvement with the music to relegating it to the role of background noise. He laments that our own listening skills may diminish and become limited to narrow frames of merely familiar reference. (It is my aim with “Issa Music” to stretch out from those frames of references by combining exotic styles. I have a long way to go to even approach all the possibilities!) Jourdain also calls rock “profoundly anti-intellectual.” Some of it, maybe. But he may not be familiar with Yes, or Flower Kings, or many other rock acts who have sought to combine intellect with rock—generally referred to as “progressive rock.”

9) From sound… to tone… to melody… to harmony… to rhythm… to composition… to performance… to listening… to understanding…

  • Jourdain looks at how the brain comprehends music, discussing the results of brain scans and comparing how music is processed with how language is processed. There are no easy conclusions. Clearly, music is not language. As Jourdain points out, language is for the purpose of precise description. Music often expresses the unexpressible, emotions, but even beyond emotions. He asks us to consider if intelligent creatures from another world who could sense music the way we do would hear/listen to/process our music the same way we do. He seems to believe a cultural context would be needed. I am not convinced. Is there something inherent in the physics of the overtone system that that would allow intelligent creatures also to perceive Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as a cry of pathos, or the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah,” or the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth as outpourings of joy? The answer to that question really goes to the heart of the question of whether music has some universal reach into the mystical/spiritual, into the metaphysics of physics.

10) From sound… to tone… to melody… to harmony… to rhythm… to composition… to performance… to listening… to understanding… to ecstasy…

  • Jourdain reminds us that the evidence shows music to be “very old,” with humans for most of their existence. He embraces the “social interaction” explanation for music evolving as a human capability. Again, as in the Levitin book, no discussion is given to whether music evolved as a spiritual adaptation and/or capability. He states that early evidence points to religious ceremonies for early humans, but never considers a spiritual capability as a possible evolutionary driver. As I said in my post about the Levitin book, I understand wanting to stay away from religion in scientific deliberation. But if the evidence points toward a religious component, I believe it is unscientific to ignore it! There is evidence that it wasn’t just social interaction, it was spiritual interaction that brought those early human beings together to dance and make music.
  • Jourdain then discusses how music brings pleasure, including how there is even pleasure in a piece of music that elicits “sad” or “painful” the emotional states, as well as how music can take us on a journey from pain to pleasure. Music also seems to be intertwined with movement, maybe even inseparable from it. Movement with sound may create the natural release of substances that give us the feeling of ecstasy. He ends up this discussion with the idea that music can be more than simply pleasurable—it can be transcendent. 


This book is bound to stimulate thinking for any music lover interested in understanding how music brings joy to so many in so many diverse ways. There was no author bio with this book. After trying all the standard internet search techniques, all I can seem to find is that Robert Jourdain is a composer, maybe also a scientist, working in French Canada, perhaps in or around Montreal. Monsieur Jourdain, or anyone familiar with you, I would love to hear from you if you become aware of this blog post. You have written a truly phenomenal book, one that will undoubtedly be a part of the literature about music for a long time. As I was reading this book recently while waiting for a table at California Pizza Kitchen where I live in Southern California, a stranger approached me saying this book was required reading for his graduate degree. I didn’t have a chance to engage him further (I wondered what his degree was in exactly). But this showed me that Music, the Brain and Ecstasy is an important book, thought-provoking and perspective-shifting.


1. Patrick Cayuela - December 29, 2013

Greetings from Merseyside. Excellent review there on RJ’s mighty fine tome. Are you aware, I wonder, of the research and lectures carried out by Tony Whyton of the University of Salford here in NW England, UK? Jolly interesting subject this is, certainly. Best wishes in your pursuits.

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