Reading List

In one week of meeting with senior music majors about their thesis papers, I’ve recommended all of the following books:

The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

I wish I had the budget to just buy a dozen copies of every book that’s ever changed my life, and give them away to students who walk into my office.

13 thoughts on “Reading List

  1. sharolyn

    I am reading Musicophilia now. One guy lost his perfect pitch after surviving a brain aneurysm. Stuff like this fascinates me, and leads me to 20 questions, all of which are addressed in the book.

  2. michael lee Post author

    Did you know that perfect pitch is like 200x more prevalent in countries with melodic languages (like Chinese) where pitch affects meaning? I had always thought of it as something hardwired, a roll of the dice, not something that can be conditioned by earlier experience.

    It makes you wonder what other latent abilities we might be able to unlock if we are exposed to the right stimuli at the right moment in our development.

  3. Daniel Semsen

    >>It makes you wonder what other latent abilities we might be able to unlock if we are exposed to the right stimuli at the right moment in our development.

    You mean, like X-Ray vision? And time travel?

  4. sharolyn

    Mike, yes, that was fascinating to me as well. (Now I am thinking of John Barnts and his “Asian envy”.)

    I liked the one woman with perfect pitch who used the analogy of color. (Hi, June!) A huge portion of our population could answer the question: “Here’s an E. what note is this? Right, G.” She said that would be like asking, “What color is this? Wait, can I please see blue first? Okay, I thought that was red, and now I’m certain.”

  5. sharolyn

    I was also thinking back to college, because our dean, Dr. Grant had perfect pitch. Where he might hear C-G-E-B flat-D sharp”, Harmonicminer (Hi, Phil!) might hear C7 sharp 9. (Phil, jump in and correct me… ‘not trying to put words in your mouth…)

    So I was thinking about the implications of that, such as thinking “vertically” (I enjoy the color of this chord) versus thinking horizontally (Where is this progression going?).

    The author, Oliver Sacks, also brings up composers and their abilities / what their brains must have looked like. At one point he mentions, “Tchaikovsky was never going to be a Beethoven,” which perplexed me… I don’t think Beethoven could have written Swan Lake either… (?). Plus, compositions, like anything, reflect the choices of the era through supply and demand. People had already heard Beethoven.

    I’ll stop there.

  6. michael lee Post author

    I’ve been thinking a lot about talent lately, and I think that there is a relatively small set of abilities that is transferable across a broad range of disciplines as “talent”.

    Watching an 8-year old play cello, I can’t help thinking that the things which have made him a talented young player (enhanced mental perception, curiosity, ability to synthesize repeated actions into a coherent functional process, etc.) would have made that child outstanding at a lot of things other than music. I see the same thing with our students, most of the time. Many of our most “talented” students possess a nearly universal skill set for being successful at mental tasks. Now, they may suffer an acute lack of time to actually employ those skills in other disciplines, because of the demands of their music training, but they still have them.

    I wonder how much of what we call “talent” is really just a stand in for two other words, “intelligent” and “diligent”? I wonder how many potentially “talented” musicians never discovered that they could excel because of teachers who were unable to access that intelligence and diligence in meaningful ways?

  7. sharolyn

    Mike said: “I wonder how much of what we call “talent” is really just a stand in for two other words, “intelligent” and “diligent”?”

    Well said. I’ll remember this. I can think of a phenomenal concert pianist I know who is also fluent in three languages (she learned Polish IN GERMAN). Also, a music educator I admire tremendously is also a respected gymnastics coach.

    I think these two outstanding people were diligent with their intelligence. Conversations with them are filled with meaning. It convicts and inspires me to be diligent with whatever intelligence I may have, both for the benefit of me and those I influence, and also to the glory of God.

    Very loose quote: C.S. Lewis somehow said that the biggest sin is laziness. That ties somehow into what I am trying to say.

  8. harmonicminer

    I do think there is a basic level of musical talent (largely a set of perceptual potentials) that is required to develop strong skills in music. But I do remember not being able to play by ear, and I know how I learned.

    I’ve often thought that my main “talent” was the ability to teach myself, which is at least partly sheer determination.

    Having said all that: I know a couple of people who have talents in music that I can’t understand or even wrap my head around, that resist analysis in any structural or systematic way, and concerning which they can offer no path for students to get where they are.

    That’s TALENT.

    So, my definition of talent has become this: talent is the part that can’t be taught. Maybe it can be learned, but I doubt even that. Ability, skill, call it what you want, is the result of talent developed and deployed.

    I have had some very smart students over the years who can’t master some aspects of music, because that “talent” part just isn’t there. They have significant generalized intellectual ability, are verbal and mathematical, logical and diligent, but just aren’t ever going to light up the world musically, because some basic perceptual talent is missing.

  9. harmonicminer

    Having said that, I think enormous numbers of people who think they “don’t have the gift” just don’t have a history of working hard enough, or working smart enough.

    I know some awesome musicians who didn’t start out with some magical gift, but just started early and worked hard, and got good teaching.

  10. harmonicminer

    All true. But I have never seen someone who cannot match pitch, or carry a tune, become a reasonable musician of any kind other than percussionist or pianist. And those who become pianists (I know a few more or less monotone pianists) never play very musically.

    We had a trumpet player at APU many years back who literally could not tell if he was playing the right note. He was very smart, and got A’s in music theory. He worked hard. But he went into another line of work, in which his native intelligence and diligence has made him successful.

    There really is a difference in basic perceptual talents between people, and that difference does matter. It’s just that the minimum requirement is less than many people think.

    But I do not know anyone who has taught music for a significant length of time who thinks that some basic talent requirement does not exist.

  11. sharolyn

    If anyone cares to watch: The author of Musicophelia, neurologist Oliver Sachs, will be on The Daily Show tonight.

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