Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Power of Music by Elena Mannes - Book Review

In The Power of Music (Walker Books, 2011, 284 Pages, $9.39 on Kindle) Elena Mannes explores how music has affected the human organism from the mysts of time to the laboratories of tomorrow. In doing so, she examines the role of music in primitive societies, its power to move the mind and the spirit, its ability to heal, and the mystique of its resonance in our minds and bodies. She does so in a mostly lively style, avoiding too many references to brain geography while presenting hard science and deep speculation with visual language that makes the findings of serious research available to the lay reader. As a film maker, her visual style brings the stories she has to tell to life, while she remains a reputable reporter, providing extensive footnotes and notes. Through interviews with scholars and musicians along with field trips to concert halls and primitive societies, she not only describes the musical experience, but makes it real and personal through her own experience.

Much of the discussion of various effects music has on individuals (and groups) relies on medical and psychological research using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) which enables us to watch the brain in operation as it receives various kinds of stimulation. These images show, in vivid color and constant motion, various parts of the brain as they become involved in responding to stimuli. The images show that different frequencies, rhythms, and activities involve the brain in ways that could not even be imagined with earlier technology. Combined with more conventional measurements of blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing, a picture emerges of the entire body being effected by listening to and/or making music. The measurments also indicate that groups, listening together, may fall into synchronisity as their breathing and heart rates synchronise with others present. Studies have shown that even fetuses in utero experience the sounds of voices along with the tonalties and rhythms of music they hear. Such studies led to a fad in which mothers fed music by Mozart and others to their systems in order to, supposedly, increase the intelligence of their unborn child.

Maness spends considerable time examining the effects of music on learning and behavior both in ordinary learning situations and in theraputic ones. She notes that children who study and perform music tend to improve in their academic work, although one might ask whether such effects are causal or correlational. She also details a number of settings where music is used theraputically in both mental and physical settings. The effects of music an demnetia have been well-documented. The use of musical vibration on physical health lie more on the fringes of medical practice, but deserve continued research and open consideration. The technology for using music in therapy has bloomed in the past couple of decades, spawning not only research but commercial applications. Those who would denigrate such efforts should only consider the effects of music on buyer behavior in department stores or supermarkets to reconsider their derision. 

Elena Mannes

Elena Mannes is a multi-award winning documentary director/writer/producer as well as an author. Her first book, "The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the New Science of Song, is published by Walker Books/Bloomsbury USA (May 31, 2011). Her work has appeared on both public and commercial television. Her honors include six national Emmys, a George Foster Peabody Award, two Directors Guild of America Awards, and nine Cine Golden Eagles. Mannes developed and created a primetime PBS special, "The Music Instinct: Science and Song" a Co-production with WNET/Thirteen. She was also co-Executive Producer as well as Director/Writer/Producer of the two-hour program which aired on PBS in June 2009.

Most of the examples come from the classical repertoire, but Mannes also entertains the possibility that rock music and jazz have a powerful effect also. Discussions with jazz musicians in which they describe periods during jamming when they were “in the zone” with all players experiencing a kind of togetherness that drew them all into a unit, sometimes even involving the audience. Perhaps much of the joy of participating in jams at bluegrass events is an outgrowth (or a precursor) to the joy professional musicians experience in the jam. In fact, there is more than passing reference in the book to the loss of music as a social experience as it has moved from the parlor or campfire (or even cave) to the concert hall and, even more distanced, the recording, becoming the province of the professional muscian rather than the eager participant. Now the greater participation comes from a range of behavior from toe tapping to dancing. Mannes explores the relationship between music and movement in some detail, suggesting that it is nearly impossible not to respond to music in a physical fashion. One study suggested that knowing the muscian had an effect upon the listeners. People who attend bluegrass events can attest to the importance they find in their personal relationships with the musicians, perhaps a unique experience in musical genres. Imagine developing even a passing personal relationship with Bob Dylan or Yo Yo Ma after a concert!

In reading this book, it's difficult not to consider the role of music and rhythm in religious experience. Whether it's simple human singingin church, the swelling organ creating inner vibrations, the pervasive use of bass voices in southern gospel music, the bobbing and chanting of observant Jews before the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, whirling dervishes in the Muslim world, or the unison chants and drums of Budhists seeking oneness and less than “I,” one is driven to become one with the rhythm of the universe, to reach back to before the Big Bang to the oneness of all. By telling this story, Elena Mannes opens the possibility that music contains the key to understanding our place in the universe. This is no small feat.

The Power of Music by Elena Mannes (Walker Books, 2011, 284 Pages, $9.39 on Kindle) excites the imagination in nearly every chapter. It opens possibilities of musical experience many of us never experience either as listeners or (perhaps) as performers. Even as it reaches levels of speculation that may cause some readers to resist, the possibilities suggested for improving human experience through more extensive use and experience of music are vast and underreported. The Power of Music opens new worlds to those who are willing to experience them. I bought this book and read it on my Kindle.