Beethoven¹s Anvil:
Music in Mind and Culture
William Benzon

Basic Books, 2001
ISBN: 0-465-01543-3


"A provocative and persuasive treatise. Unlike most who write about this greatest of all mental mysteries, William Benzon is equally comfortable with the science and the art of music."

Howard Gardner    

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Why does the brain create music? What is it about certain abstract patterns of sound that makes us want to dance? How can songs have deep emotional power despite lyrics that are simple and trite?

We tend to think of the arts as luxuries rather than necessities, and as inventions of society rather than evolution. Yet the origin of musical ability was a turning point in the evolution of modern humans. Every culture, without exception, has some form of music. Is this really a luxury or does it answer some basic biological need? If so, what? In Beethoven's Anvil, William Benzon takes up the fascinating and unexplored link between music and the brain. Among early humans, he says, there was no distinction between music, dance, ritual and religion^Ëthey were all part of the same activity, and this activity used every part of the conscious brain.

Language, movement, vision, emotion, hearing, touch and social interaction were all involved. In fact, Benzon argues, music is necessary precisely because it engages so many different parts of the brain. It literally keeps the brain in tune with itself and with the brains of others. The ultimate form of musical experience is that feeling of oneness with a larger entity that we identify as transcendent religious experience. We feel this way because that¹s precisely what the brain is doing: becoming one with a larger unit, the human tribe.

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Preface: Speculative Engineering

1. Some Varieties of Musical Experience

Part I: Collective Dynamics
2. Music and Coupling
3. Fireflies: Dynamics and Brain States
4. Musical Consciousness and Pleasure

Part II: Music and the Mind
5. Blues in the Night: Emotion in Music
6. Rhythm Methods: Patterns of Construction
7. Bright Moments

Part III: The Evolution of Musical Culture
8. The Proto-Human Rhythm Band
9. Musicking the World
10. Music and Civilization
11. Through Jazz and Beyond

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"Beethoven's Anvil presents the compelling and entertaining thesis that we humans above all are musical creatures. From neural circuits to social circles, from elementary consciousness to concerts and rituals, Benzon explains how music and dance provide the social technologies that link minds into communities. This is original work of the highest importance."

Walter Freeman, author of How Brains Make Up Their Minds                

"I admire Benzon¹s mastery of so many diverse idea-worlds and congratulate him as a virtuoso both of thought and of performance. Beethoven's Anvil is a rare combination; learned, proficient, and profoundly provocative. Reading it was a great experience for me."

William H. McNeill, author of Plagues and Peoples and Keeping Together in Time                 

"The cutting edge rarely cuts deep. For decades we have been tantalizingly exposed to scraps of research on the brain and the origins of language and culture. But there was no synthesis. Then suddenly this suitably ambitious project appears. Beethoven's Anvil is surely destined to orchestrate an exciting debate for everyone interested in the evolution of mind."

Mary Douglas, author of Natural Symbols                 

"In this truly remarkable book, Bill Benzon shows how the timed and synchronized flow of music creates pleasure in our brains, and how music can and does and did contribute to our survival as a species. Everyone who enjoys music will find this new understanding of the basics both eye- and ear-opening."

Norman N. Holland, editor, PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychology of the Arts              







Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles