Books: “You Are the Music”

This spring, Icon Books released You Are The Music: How Music Reveals What It Means to Be Human by Victoria Williamson.  It’s a fascinating title, and a cutting-edge topic, as new research is bringing into question the 90s-era “Mozart Effect” that caused a global stir and sent parents hurtling toward tummy-hugging headphones, all sorts of tot-friendly musical products, and high hopes for a brighter baby.  This new book, at first glance, is an inviting exploration of the merits of musical study.  But soon after reading begins, the explorer gets lost.

Williamson’s attempt to make the book user-friendly unfortunately results in a sometimes condescending tone, which, although probably unintentional, is just annoying.  But more frustrating is her vacillating premise — the author can’t seem to decide whether she is an expert or not:

I am not a professional musician but I taught music for thirteen years. 

(How do the parents of her students feel when they read this?)

I am not presenting myself as a music education guru here…

and

I was only fifteen when I began teaching; neither technically advanced nor concert-experienced.  I now know, however, that those things are not so important when a child is just beginning their lessons…

She seems proud to call herself a teacher, then shows little respect for those who are better qualified.  There are certainly many part-time musicians who do not perform but teach well, but this requires a delicate balance and understanding of their role and responsibility.  Any music teacher who has struggled with their intermediate and advanced students to undo the teachings of earlier but less knowledgeable instructors will face an equal struggle taking this author seriously.  Ms. Williamson doesn’t seem to balance — she just wants it both ways.

The simple fact is that by writing this book, Williamson does indeed set herself up as an expert.  The repeated insistence that she is not is disingenuous, and reads as a CYA tactic.  Worse, opinions are presented as gospel truth, due to her didactic style of writing.  So she’s an author but not an authority, and we should still read and believe what she says?

Highly respected researchers need not be firsthand experts on their topic: a knowledgeable writer can create a deeply insightful and valuable resource on Beethoven, although they never knew him personally.  But regardless of the field, authors must back up their thesis and their “findings” with legitimate secondary sources, at the very least.  Here, the cited examples too often show very small research samplings, casting doubt on the studies’ viability.  The author’s own conclusions are weak in spots, as well:  she seems to have a poor understanding of the concept of Genius, for instance, summing up her discussion of Mozart as a composer by suggesting that his abilities might have been matched by anyone brought up in similar circumstances.  This is an old argument, to be sure, but the way she expresses it comes off sounding like an offhand remark, with enough holes in the reasoning that it makes us wonder if that is really what she wanted to say, or just the kind of rationalization long embraced by bitter wannabes.

In another section, the aspect of music’s potential influence in mental development is considered too small to matter, since IQ improvement was “only” 2-3% over a six-month period.  But Williamson doesn’t seem to care about digging deeper:  has anyone measured the effect over longer periods?  Couldn’t one suppose there might have been additional benefit over time?  Or did she stop her own research once she found a study that suited her own premise?  The take-away seems to be that we shouldn’t be carried away with the thought that music lessons will boost the brain and behavior in every sense, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and seeming to show a baffling lack of value for what she does embrace as her own field, whatever her credentials.

A little reality check:  Most musicians do not actually believe that contact with music will cure all ills, build geniuses and bring about world peace.  The title of this book is actually very apt, as music is both a part of us and one of the most powerful ways to express our humanity.  Helping as many people as possible to appreciate and make their own music is a profound and sacred duty, and it can result in supreme joy on both sides.  Music does not need a stamp of approval for being the world’s panacea.  But this book seems to focus a great deal on tearing down the myths, rather than illuminating the real magic of what music brings to the lives of ordinary people.

Sadly, sometimes the cover is the best part.  Although we looked forward to reviewing this title, at least to present it as a resource for our lay readers, we cannot recommend it in the end.  Ms. Williamson seems to waffle too much, purporting to present a collection of recommendations based on research, but repeatedly offering opinions instead.  It leaves the book and its creator with little credibility, where this might have been a valuable opportunity to show readers the many ways music changes and defines us. The message seems to get lost in the shuffle.

Hopefully the next effort in this direction will be more sure and even-handed.

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