Book Review: Comparing Notes: How We Make Sense of Music, by Adam Ockelford

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Writing about music has been compared to dancing about architecture. In other words, it is an attempt to capture the ineffable with inadequate tools. The nature of music is as confounding as the concept of consciousness. In Comparing Notes, Adam Ockelford seeks to devise a blueprint for understanding both.

Upon graduating from the Royal Academy of Music, Ockelford began teaching music to special needs children at Linden Lodge; children who, despite being born blind or profoundly autistic, possessed remarkable, and sometimes prodigal, musical abilities.

Ockelford has since devoted his life to comprehending how these untrained children, including the renowned blind pianist Derek Paravicini, were able to eclipse the skills he attained through rigorous study at a tertiary institution.

Comparing Notes is a synthesis of the author’s life’s work; almost five decades of exploration, which has included a PhD at London University. It is a thesis, an amalgamation of seemingly divergent fields, such as music theory, neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology.

The subject matter of Comparing Notes is inherently intricate and dastardly complex. While Ockelford does use contemporary examples of music, and even nursery rhymes, to illustrate his arguments, this is not a book for the casual reader.

For example, the children’s ballad Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star is given a meticulous 20-page linguistic and musical analysis. This is fascinating and enlightening, but also heavy going.

Comparing Notes contains world-changing ideas, and is essential reading for classical composers, music theorists, special needs teachers, neuroscientists, and evolutionary biologists. If you lack technical expertise though, and find yourself simply thinking: “Oh, that looks interesting, I might give it a go”, you could be in for a rough time.

While music can seemingly be distilled to notes on page, these notes, when played, will be perceived by each of us differently, depending upon the unique structures of our mind. Comparing Notes is an integral step in identifying what is universal about the listening experience to all of us.

Reviewed by James Murphy

Rating out of 10:  8

Distributed by: Allen & Unwin
Released: June 2017
RRP: $39.99 hardcover

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Comparing Notes contains world-changing ideas, and is essential reading for classical composers, music theorists, special needs teachers, neuroscientists, and evolutionary biologists. If you lack technical expertise though, you could be in for a rough time.

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