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Henkjan Honing

Iedereen is Muzikaal (Musical Cognition: A Science of Listening)

Category: Music | Published: 2009 | Review Added: 20-06-2020

Rating: 3 - Worth reading

I was hoping that this book about musical cognition would be up to the standard of Aap Slaat Maat by the same author, but I was somewhat disappointed. Its subject is musical cognition in humans, and it was only after its publication that Henkjan Honing dug deeper into the evolutionary origins of musicality, or proto-musicality, in humans and other animals that is covered by the later book.

The Dutch title Iedereen is Muzikaal means "Everyone is Musical", and Honing adopts the position that you don't need to have had a musical education to appreciate music. While mildly anti-elitist the way Honing handles it, this stance is not particularly controversial, and many times I wondered what he was getting worked up about. There's a fair bit of criticism of academic musicologists along these lines:

The approach to music as a physical and mathematical phenomenon has something nostalgic and romantic about it. It harbours something of the ancient Greek idea of the "Harmony of the Spheres". As though we might return to the time - supposing it ever existed - when harmonic, beautiful or "correct" music was conditioned by nature... All we'd need to do is restore knowledge of the harmonic numerical relationships that lie hidden in music, to be able, just like Pythagoras, to re-establish a connection between music and cosmos...

This sweeping dismissal of a scientific basis to musical harmonics lays the groundwork for a survey of Honing's own area of study: musical perception, as distinct from music itself. He makes the valid point that music exists ultimately as a qualitative, subjective phenomenon, not as a set of notes in a score or a sequence of digital bits on a CD. However, it doesn't follow that there are no patterns to music that mirror physical principles. Derycke Cooke's seminal The Language of Music makes a convincing case for an element of physics in aesthetic harmonics, but Honing doesn't cite Cooke or any more recently active researchers into the subject.

Harmonics, indeed, figure but fleetingly in Honing's account. Most of the experiments whose results he presents study rhythm, a decidedly less complex aspect of music. Some rhythms create suspense in the listener through the omission of significant beats - "loud rests", as Honing terms them. He illustrates his findings by means of triangular, triple-axis graphs, and these I found frankly baffling, No doubt they were an efficient way of recording results - each axis represents the length of one of three "loud rests" in a particular rhythm - but they cost me more effort to decipher than I could be bothered to sustain.

In his preface, Honing writes, "This book was written relatively quickly, in a few periods of 'luxury, tranquillity and plenty of tea'", and to be honest it shows. It doesn't advance a single argument, but rather is a rag-bag of opinions, insights and statistics from a fairly restricted pool of research data. There are perhaps three or four interesting observations that the musically-inclined reader wouldn't have arrived at themselves, but these are related at unnecessary length to help fill out a book that is ultimately lacking in focus. It's worth reading, but it could have been done better.

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