Many of us know from our own experience that music can evoke ecstasy. But it takes a rather remarkable sum of talents to account for how vibrations in the air actually do this, without leaving the lay reader behind in a cloud of phenomenological, musicological and neurophysiological dust. In "Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy," Robert Jourdain achieves this and more with the sweet ease of a virtuoso, introducing us to the miraculous workings of our own minds with a wonderfully sure and felicitous touch.
Jourdain, who is based in Northern California, does independent research on artificial intelligence and is a musician. He is also a splendid, imaginative writer whose prose, lucid and beautifully succinct, has all the liveliness of a Mozart allegro. That's not easy, considering the task he has set himself in this book: to give intelligent, easy-to-grasp explanations of how very complex things work and happen.
In reading it, I found myself in the presence of a kindred spirit and, while delightedly reconsidering things I have often mused upon--such as the connection of music to the emotional and spiritual realm--I also found I was learning quite a lot about processes I never even knew were occurring.
Thanks to the wondrous economy of evolution, our embryonic gills developed into the lower jaw, the larynx and the middle ear (the latter two are the organs by which we participate physically in the world of sound). But although our hearing is of quite ancient derivation (though, as Jourdain points out, far from primordial), our brain's capacity for making sense of what we call music came as a late development and was shaped, honed and defined by our human ancestors' struggle to survive in the wild. Jourdain shows how it is the brain, not the ear, that actually hears and, more importantly how the brain--through its role in perceiving the edges and boundaries of sounds as well as its capacity to categorize, model relationships, establish deep hierarchies of meaning and anticipate--that helps us listen to music and enjoy it.