The best pop-science writers serve as momma birds who regurgitate tough technical truths while stopping short of turning them into complete pap. Filmmaker Elena Mannes never fully nails that balance in The Power Of Music: Pioneering Discoveries In The New Science Of Song. As a legatee of one of the “first families of American music” (after whom The New School Of Music is named) she’s especially well-suited to the task of condensing and converting reams of research for a wider audience. And she has—just not here. The book adapts and expands her acclaimed PBS documentary The Music Instinct: The Science Of Song into a telescoping examination of the power of music to teach, to heal, and to communicate. As Donald Trump helpfully pointed out in an episode of Da Ali G Show, music is the most popular thing in the world. Studying it is inherently fascinating, but Mannes’ execution is a din of dry recitation and fuggy everything-is-music philosophizing.
Until the final chapters, The Power Of Music is almost entirely the former. Mannes is backed up by a chorus of researchers and musicians, including British rockers Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley. Like everyone else, they are annoyingly introduced, reintroduced, and then reintroduced again, almost rhythmically, even 100 pages in. They’re a softening influence on all the hard data, which gets at some long-standing questions held by parent and performer alike: Do children hear in the womb? (Yes.) Does learning music impart bonuses to other, non-musical parts of the brain? (It does.) And does passively listening to music make you smarter? (Probably not.)
From infants to schoolchildren and on, the conversation propagates outward into the semi-superpower of perfect pitch, the apparent universality of western music, and eventually, in the book’s most aww-inducing chapter, into the capacity for musical expression among non-humans. In the right hands, these topics should become an edifying, entertaining book. It’s unfortunate, then, that Music blurs into an undistinguished mass of anecdote and data that suffers from stiff, soulless presentation. Maybe those numerous guest spots are supposed to fill Mannes’ charisma gap, but by the time the conversation moves from the terrestrial to the intergalactic, otherwise-engrossing passages about the “sound” of a black hole feel like too little, too late. And while there’s no outright misinformation in the mystical final pages, they split the book between a drab data-dump on one side and hooey on the other. In the end, The Power Of Music is an admirable effort that’s about as thrilling to read as a guitar tab.