Musicophila: Tales of Music and the Brain


When I told my parents that I was pregnant with their first grandchild, my father said, almost sternly, “Well, dear, I do hope you’re singing to the baby.” I don’t know if encouraging an ear for music is an optional stage of fetal development — it just might be inevitable. The neurologist and essayist Oliver Sacks, in his new book of essays entitled Musicophilia, takes on the mysterious internal human drives towards music, often against tough odds. Almost everyone possesses the “neural apparatus” for appreciating music — Sacks will go on to tell us about some people who, through various neurological accidents, have lost it — but the sheer human fact of appreciating music at all, he points out, is a very weird thing. “t has no concepts, makes no propositions; it lacks images, symbols, the stuff of language. It has no power of representation. It has no necessary relation to the world.”

As a largely internal and nonverbal experience, music can lead to thoughts of solipsism — perhaps especially in the age of the iPod. What is it other people hear when they listen? And yet we seem to have proof in normal contexts that we are not locked in our own experience of music. We can play and sing and dance in concert with one another, share a smile over a remembered phrase, and so forth. Sacks’ job, in his office and this book, is more difficult. He must try “to imagine and enter” into the experiences of people who have had highly anomalous things happen to them.

He considers, for instance, the extreme case of musicophilia — a sudden onrush of love for, even obsession with, music. Take the orthopedic surgeon who listened, in a casual sort of way, to rock music. Then he was struck by lightning. He survived to find himself consumed with a passion for classical piano music — he even began to compose it — that fundamentally altered the course of his life. Synesthesia — one sense fused to another — is slightly more common; while some people seem to be born experiencing sound in terms of color, others develop the condition as they age. Still, synesthesia seems to be highly individualized, so that the composer Michael Torke, for example, experiences G Major as bright yellow and D Minor as “like flint, graphite,” while for the composer David Caldwell it is the key of B-flat that is “clear and golden.” One musician tastes intervals — minor seconds and major sevenths are sour, a fifth is pure water. The romantic fantasist and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann even describes a character as “a little man in a coat the color of C sharp minor with an E major colored collar.” Where in the range of debility and blessing should we put people with Williams syndrome? Their chromosomal glitch debilitates them severely in some areas — leaving them with an inability to recognize spatial relations, for instance — and yet grants them extraordinary joy in music.

Hypersensitivity to music can bring with it irritations — surely we all know the maddening mental repetitions of a jingle or fragmentary snatches from some tune we never liked much to begin with and certainly won’t after being possessed by it. Borrowing the German word Ohrwurm, English now has the useful word “earworm” to describe these “cognitively infectious musical agents.” Considering the ubiquity of Muzak and iPods, Sacks wonders if such earworms are “to some extent, a modern phenomenon.” I suspect he’s partly right — we’re all exposed willy-nilly to more music now than ever before — but English already had its own evocative term for a piece of music that won’t let you go: maggot. Plenty of 17th- and 18th-century dance tunes were even called — whether descriptively or hopefully — things like “Mr. Isaac’s Maggot” (Mr. Isaac was the dancing master to the Stuart court, so a successful maggot could even then bring financial reward).

Worse than temporary earworms and maggots are permanent conditions or alterations such as amusia, in which music makes no sense but sounds discordant, sometimes to the point of nausea. As a lifelong lover of counterpoint, I had never before contemplated the horrifying possibility of having too much of an ear for polyphony. One composer who had been in a coma after a car accident now experiences music as completely discrete lines of sound, “thin, sharp laser beams”; she suffers the agony of life without harmony, without the integrations of disparate voices into a meaningful beauty.

The most painful case to read, I found, is of the English musician Clive Wearing, who more than 20 years ago lost all but the shortest-term memory. Locked outside the flow of time — like Zeno’s stop-motion arrow, never reaching the target — he has found himself close to despair. But music still possesses the power to tie all his discrete “nows” together, so that, even if only temporarily, he can feel himself move forward through time. His wife, the sole other aspect of his past he remembers, describes him playing: “The momentum of the music carried Clive from bar to bar. Within the structure of the piece, he was held, as if the staves were tramlines and there was only one way to go. He knew exactly where he was because in every phrase there is context implied, by rhythm, key, melody. It was marvelous to be free. When the music stopped Clive fell through to the lost place. But for those moments he was playing he seemed normal.”

Tales like this remind us not to underrate the normal. “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is,” sighs St. Augustine plaintively. When Augustine tried to figure out this big abstraction, it is partly to music that he turned: “A person singing or listening to a song he knows well undergoes a distension or stretching in feeling because he is partly anticipating words still to come and partly remembering words already sung.” God, in Augustine’s view, might be the only being who can simultaneously know and experience the totality of time, but music gives us a glimpse of that freedom to feel both the momentary and the eternal.

In works like Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks has proven to be beautifully tuned to both the calibrations of the brain and the appearances — sometimes mere traces — of personality in the cases brought before his clinical attention. That is, while he is obviously fascinated by the mechanics — the physical causes behind why someone is experiencing life differently — he doesn’t reduce the people before him to bundles of medical happenstance but always also seeks the particularities of that self. Many of the lives in Sacks’ book are so distorted by severe neurological traumas that it would be easy to classify them as monstrous mistakes of nature from which a human — all-too-human — reaction is to avert our eyes with a shudder. We would be wrong. That arch-antisentimentalist Nietzsche asserted, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Sacks, equally unsentimental, amends Nietzsche. Conceiving of life without music is, at some fundamental level, a human impossibility.