How Music Can Make You Better – book review


The title of this book says it all. I have spent countless hours researching and pouring through the online data to figure out the answer to this question. Now the author Indre Viskontas put it succintly in her little book titled How Music Can Make You Better .

No surprise here, as Dr. Indre Viskontas is highly qualified to shed some light on this topic. She is a highly educated opera singer and has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. That’s a great combination! On her website she introduces herself with following words ‘I work at the intersection of music and neuroscience to educate, engage and entertain’. And in her professional life she does all of it as a scientist, researcher, educator, opera singer, presenter and podcaster. 

The book starts with a strong statement ‘ Music Is Powerful’. The following 120 pages brings information from various points of view to prove this. 

The Part I explains ‘How do our brains turn sound into music’. As a true scientist, the author begins with identification of the main subject of her writing in the chapter What is Music? She masterfully combines information from the music science with attractive examples from the broad world of classical and popular music, citing authors like the predominant music psychologist Diana Deutsh, or musicians David Byrne, John Cage, or Harland Howard. 

“Music isn’t in sound waves. It’s not in your ears. It’s not on the page. It’s in your brain.”

Indre Viskontas 

The following chapters explain – how do we find meaning in music, and how and why we develop relationship with a certain type of music.  

A really relevant chapter to our philosophy here at is ‘Yes, pretty much anyone can sing’, where the author describes her experience that I personally encountered also many times when working with people: “Anyone can learn to appreciate music. But can everyone produce it? People often tell me they can’t carry a tune, that they were born unable to sing. This mindset is a modern tragedy. Whereas music used to be performed by nearly everyone, it’s becoming the exclusive domain of the professional.”

The Part II looks at ‘How can music heal our minds and bodies?’. It describes interesting examples where ‘Music repairs broken circuits’ in a brain, where it helps in the treatment of the Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease and the brain damage, how it can reduce stress and diminish pain, how it can soothe a baby and adult insomniacs to sleep. Following are chapters about music helping in exercising, in boosting or improving mood, enhancing learning …

A crucial for me is the chapter Shaping the brain with musical training. Viskontas writes “While listening to Mozart might not make you measurably smarter than reading a great novel would, long-term musical training—active participation rather than passive listening—can show many benefits beyond arousal.” Shementions also neuroplasticity in adults – a rather new scientific discovery, that the adult brain can physically change and grow new cells  – where an active music practice and participation plays a crucial role. Clearly – not everyone can and want to practice those “required” 10,000 hours to become a virtuoso. But everyone can benefit from playing a music instrument or from singing.

The Part III deals with a topic, which seems so obvious but is, in fact, dissappearing from our everyday lives – How can music make society better? With the commoditization of music comes its propensity to insulate people, especially if they are only passive listeners. A blank stare of headphones toting ‘music listeners’, often completely oblivious to their surroundings, can be literally life-threataning, especially in the traffic. This is the use of music, which hardly has any benefit from the social point of view. 

The last chapter brings a topic, that like the author herself, I have also an issue with. It is about that unfortunate “auditory cheesecake” explanation of the value of music, from Steven Pinker. I have read a number of papers on this topic, but it keeps bothering me. The famous linguist Pinker is pushing his own agenda, and that is understandable. The fact, that his view has impacted a substantial part of the discussion about the origin of music and language, is in my opinion unfortunate. If, according to Pinker, music was only “an auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of … our mental faculties”, why would music still have the power to move brains suffering from Alzheimer’s, long after most of the speaking abilities and thus language are gone? And this is just one example.

If you check this book on Amazon, you will find out a number of one- or two-star reviews, which is really unfortunate. Especially for the reason – a mishap in the print quality of the physical book, that apparently makes reading very challenging. I am not sure how much was this situation influenced by the author herself. The fact is that the ebook version doesn’t suffer from any issues and is quite pleasant to read. Definitely worth your time and effort.

Indre Viskontas has written a great tiny book, that I personally would like to consider as a manifesto of Musicably. The very last sentence says it all “… we can’t take advantage of all the ways that music shapes our brains if we restrict ourselves to listening. It’s playing music, not simply listening, that unlocks our potential for widespread neuroplasticity.”


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