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Polyphonic Minds - Peter Pesic ***

This book conjures up distinctly mixed feelings. The title feels rather misleading, as it is primarily a book about musical polyphony. The 'minds' part comes in during the final 10% of the book, where we do have some consideration of the relationship between polyphony and the way the brain works - but it's certainly not the main focus here.

As it happens, in covering the development of polyphony in the West through the ages, with particular reference to church music, it covers something I am very interested in - so I found it highly engaging (if rather stodgy in writing style). However, without that interest it doesn't have enough on the mind and brain to interest a purely popular science reader (it is classified as music/science).

What we get is a thorough exploration of the way musical structures have changed in time, from what we can deduce about Ancient Greek music, through the earliest recorded church music as it moved from primarily being monophonic chant to having multiple voices, intertwining and interacting in their impact on the ear. What made the book particularly effective is that there are lots of examples, where we get the sheet music in the book - but the clever bit is this is supported by a website which has sound clips of all the examples, so you can hear how the polyphonic approach has grown, up to Tallis's mind-blowing Spem in Alium (I've sung in this, but I've never seen all 40 parts written out at once), and into modern takes on polyphony.

The reader will get far more than an exploration of the development of a musical technique. We see, for example, the constant battles between two camps, one of which wants simple music merely to support the words and the other looking for the most mind-blowing way to set words to music without worrying too much if you can understand them. I was aware of this happening in the UK during the Reformation, but didn't realise how much earlier it had started. And to cap it all, one of the examples of the way discordant combinations have been used is illustrated by one of my favourite bits of music ever, the ending of Byrd's Agnus Dei from his Four Part Mass, where the suspensions (I've always thought of them as scrunches) make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

So, the way this book is rated very much depends on what you want out of it. If you are looking for science, there is a little, both on the physical nature of sound production, harmony and discord, plus the history of the development of ideas about how the brain works. But primarily this is a history of music book, focusing on that one, wonderful topic of polyphony. If the musical content is for you, then this is a strongly recommended read.



Review by Brian Clegg


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