Literary Links: The Science of Music and Sound

Music plays an important role in most people’s lives. I myself attribute many songs to specific points in my life and hearing them can trigger a specific emotional response. And, although most people love music, I recently learned that up to 5% of the world’s population doesn’t like music. This phenomenon is called musical anhedonia. For those who do enjoy music, or at least are interested in learning more about it, consider checking out some of the books below.

High Bias by Marc Masters book coverI grew up in the ‘90s so cassette tapes are very nostalgic for me. My first car only had a tape deck, and I remember listening to Nirvana’s album “Nevermind” over and over again on my drive to and from school. Marc Masters explores the history of cassette tapes in “High Bias: The Distorted History of the Cassette Tape.” He charts the journey of the cassette tape from its invention in the early 1960s to its Walkman-led domination in the 1980s to its decline at the birth of the compact discs to its resurgence among independent music makers today.

To continue my fascination with ‘90s music, there is no better book to pick up than “60 Songs That Explain the ‘90s.” This book is a companion to the podcast of the same name in which author Rob Harvilla reimagines all the earworm-y, iconic hits Gen Xers pine for with vivid historical storytelling, sharp critical analysis, rampant loopiness and wryly personal ruminations. I personally love the chapter that focuses on women in rock, specifically highlighting songs by The Cranberries, Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple (and many more).

Maybe you, like me, were big into emo music during its heyday. In “Where Are Your Boys Tonight?: The Oral History of Emo’s Mainstream Explosion 1999-2008” music journalist Chris Payne compiles interviews with over 150 people, from the scene’s biggest bands, producers and managers to the teenage fans who helped redefine American music culture. 

Listen by Michel Faber book coverSome may be more familiar with the author Michel Faber from his fiction titles “The Crimson Petal and the White” and “Under the Skin,” but he’s also written a wonderful nonfiction book about sound and music. In “Listen: Music, Sound and Us,” Faber explores two big questions: how do we listen to music and why do we listen to music? He considers a range of factors, including age, illness, the notion of “cool,” commerce and the dichotomy between “good” and “bad” taste. 

Maybe you want to better understand why you like the music you like. In “This Is What It Sounds Like,” author Susan Rogers explains that we each possess a unique “listener profile” based on our brain’s natural response to seven key dimensions of any song. Are you someone who prefers lyrics or melody? Do you like music “above the neck” (intellectually stimulating) or “below the neck” (instinctual and rhythmic). 

Why You like it by Nolan Gasser book coverIf you’re looking for a real deep dive into why you like music, look no further than “Why You Like It: The Science & Culture of Musical Taste.” This massive book comes in at an impressive 700 pages. Author Nolan Gasser delves into the science, psychology and sociology that explain why humans love music so much; how our brains process music; and why you may love Queen but your best friend loves Kiss. 

For a more personal take, author Adriana Barton sets out to uncover music’s true potential — combing through medical studies, traveling to state-of-the-art neuroscience labs and meeting with musicians, therapists and traditional healers to get to the root of music’s profound effects on the human body and brain in “Wired for Music: A Search for Health and Joy Through the Science of Sound.” Barton has a personal history with music, having played cello for two decades starting at the age of five.

A Book of Noises by Caspar Henderson book cover A Book of Noises: Notes on the Auraculous” describes sounds from around the natural and human world in 48 essays. Author Casper Henderson explores sounds broken down into four different areas: cosmophony, sounds of space; geophony, sounds of earth; biophony, sounds of life; and anthropophony, sounds of humanity. Essay topics vary from everyday sounds like frogs, owls and thunder to more obscure sounds like volcanos, the northern lights and climate change.

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