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How We Hear Music. The Relationship between Music and the Hearing Mechanism

Br2002_11Beament, James (2001). How We Hear Music. The Relationship between Music and the Hearing Mechanism. Suffolk:Boydell & Brewer.

Reviewed by Annemiek Vink

When I was a small boy in the 1920s, any conversation about music interested me, and I took every opportunity to ask questions. What do you mean by a violin is tuned in fifths? …Why are the called fifths? ..That’s what they are always called… So a fifth is something I hear from the right pairs of piano notes….

James Beament continues to ask questions about music in his new book: How we Hear music. The relationship between music and the hearing mechanism. The book is full of his enthusiasm for the topic and reflects his long experience as a violin player, scientist and music teacher at Cambridge University.

The question posed throughout this book is how musical sounds are coded by the ear and how this in turn influenced music’s fundamentals. To answer this question, the book starts out with a discussion of the origins of western tonal music. How and when did for instance polyphony develop? Generally assumed is that polyphony developed rather late in history. Beamont questions if this is so and argues that the potential of polyphony has been discovered much earlier in time. After the history of western tonal music, in the further chapters a variety of musical principles are discussed such as why we have such a peculiar assessment of loudness and why this is independent of pitch. This discussion leads to the conclusion that the harmonics of musical sounds, which are the basis of so much theory about music, did not and cannot play the role which has been so widely attributed to them ever since the work of Helmholtz in 1870.

Relatively late in the book we switch from the music to the ear. Here an account is given of how the ear works in basic terms. One of the conclusions raised at the end of the book is that the hearing system is an automatic mechanism, up to the point where it delivers to the auditorty cortex. Therefore, all people with normal hearing have the same acoustic sensations when listening to music. This has generally been related to music itself or to the development of speech. Interestingly, Beament sees another evolutionary reason. He sees that hearing is the result of what our very distant ancestors needed for survival. Our hearing system served the function to detect the possibility of threat over long distances. So we use directional hearing when listening to music and our hearing system accordingly chose the sounds for music.

The book could be of use for practising musicians with an interest in acoustics. In my opinion it is not so much of direct use for music therapists. When I received the book, personally I hoped, to read more about how people perceive music cognitively: after music has reached the auditory cortex. This topic is regretfully not discussed in the book and most likely deserves a title on its own. I found the biological and evolutionary viewpoints in relation to the development of our hearing mechanism interesting to read. In my opinion, musical knowledge tended to dominate this book and how we hear what we hear was a topic which was more handled in the background of this book.

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