60. ‘Musicophilia,’ Oliver Sacks…

20 Feb
60. ‘Musicophilia,’ Oliver Sacks…

Musicophilia,’ Oliver Sacks

For much of my life, I ‘suffered’ what could easily be called an addiction to music. Especially during my teenage years, like many my age I spent most of my earnings on CD’s, (in the days when you actually had to pay for music, just after the days of spending all your money on cassettes and quite a lot after the days of getting floppy vinyl free on kids’ magazines, and before the brief and regrettable faze of converting all of my CDs to Minidisc and then selling them); I fell asleep to the radio, and woke up to it still playing after having saved all of my pocket money for 6months in order to buy a tape-to-tape dubbing boombox with four-band radio, (four bands?! After AM and FM, I’m not even sure I can name the other two, and I’m fairly certain I never listened to them!); and everywhere I went I was accompanied by a Walkman, or a Discman, or eventually, of course, an iPod.


I’m less addicted nowadays, (books having replaced music in my obsessions), but this was a chance for me to combine my past and present loves in this scientific collection of musical related conditions from Oliver Sacks, best known for his two previous titles ‘Awakenings‘ (mentioned in a recent blog as the source for the De Niro/Robin Williams film of the same name), and ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat

Sacks divides the various mental musical conditions into various categories, and as in most of his other works gives case studies of the various patients he has studied over the years, corresponded with or, often, himself and his family and friends, to illustrate the conditions. However, as someone fascinated by the workings of the human brain, after a few chapters I began to find the style a little dry, and lacking in depth: this was in stark contrast to a book I read a few years ago, and which understandably loomed large in my mind whilst reading ‘Musciophilia‘: the stunning ‘This Is Your Brain On Music: understanding a human obsession‘ by Daniel.J.Levitin, a book bursting with music and fascination, from its gorgeous front cover to the science of musical comprehension in the brain, via its potential importance evolutionarily to the human species.


Still, it is interesting to see how music and its deficiencies/over-abundances can affect (read: completely alter/destroy) our lives, and many of the case studies are intriguing. Sacks is himself from a highly musical family, and naturally draws a lot of material from the classical music about which he is so passionate, (compare this to a sample of the music discussed in Levitin’s book: The Beatles, Depeche Mode, The Monkees, Sesame Street, as well as Prokofiev, Miles Davis and The Star Spangled Banner), and there was plenty to keep me interested, (and to quote from for you).

Sacks on his father, (a prescient taste of the latest offering from slacker hero Beck, whose most recent ‘album’ Song Reader is only available as sheet music, to be performed or, if you are Sacks Sr, merely listened to on paper…and bizarrely, ‘released’ by my beloved McSweeney’s):

“He always had two or three miniature orchestral scores stuffed in his pockets, and between seeing patients he might pull out a score and have a little internal concert…”

On Mrs.C. in a chapter on ‘Musical Hallucinations,’ presenting an interesting alternative take on the urban myth that people who lose a sense gain heightened other senses: in fact, it turns out people who lose a sense often gain a heightened phantom feeling of the sense they have lost:

“Given her deafness, the auditory part of the brain, deprived of its usual input, had started to generate a spontaneous activity of its own, and this took the form of musical hallucinations, mostly musical memories from her earlier life. The brain needed to stay incessantly alive, and if it was not getting its usual stimulation, whether auditory or visual, it would create its own stimulation in the form of hallucinations…”

How can neuroscientists know so much about music and the brain?

“Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician – but they could recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment’s hesitation…”

Sacks was probably almost as startled as I was to see quoted a book, (the only one I bought in my first six weeks in Guatemala), which was sitting on my shelf waiting to be read next, (and, incidentally, finished moments before I started writing this blog):

“I was startled to find the following passage in Nabakov‘s autobiography, Speak, Memory:

‘Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds’…”

(I also learned the fascinating fact that Nabakov, one of my all-time favourite authors, is a synesthete, as well as his mother, his wife, and his son too!)


Vladimir Nabokov

The best moments were the descriptions of the truly bizarre eccentricities certain patients, or people in general, exhibited:

“I had met the French neurologist François Lhermitte, who once told me that when he heard music, he could say only that it was ‘The Marseillaise’ or that it was not…”

“The Finnish entomologist Olavi Sotavalta, an expert on the sounds of insects in flight, was greatly assisted in his studies by having absolute pitch – for the sound of an insect in flight is produced by the frequency of its wingbeats…The sound pitch made by the moth Plusia gamma approximates a low F-sharp, but Sotavalta could estimate it more precisely as having a frequency of 46 cycles per second…”

Quoting ‘The Oxford Companion to Music‘ on the ‘diminished seventh chord’:

“The chord is indeed the most Protean in all harmony. In England the nickname has been given it of ‘The Clapham Junction of Harmony’ – from a railway station in London where so many lines join that once arrived there one can take a train for almost anywhere else…”

Back to one of my favourite topics, and conditions – synesthesia:

“Patrick Ehlen is a psychologist and songwriter who has very extensive synesthesia…He remembers how his first-grade teacher, seeing him staring into space, asked what he was looking at. He replied that he was ‘counting the colors till Friday’…”

How useful has music been in history? Beside its theoretical importance to culture, language development and a host of other areas, it has played at least one crucial role in science, in Galileo’s experiments to time the descent of objects down inclined planes:

“Having no accurate watches or clocks to go by, he timed each trial by humming tunes to himself, and this allowed him to get results with an accuracy far beyond that of the timepieces of his era…”

I leave the final word on music, and its importance, to Sacks himself, epitomising the old saying: ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone’:

“Music is part of being human, and there is no human culture in which it is not highly developed and esteemed. Its very ubiquity may cause it to be trivialized in daily life: we switch on a radio, switch it off, hum a tune, tap our feet, find the words of an old song going through our minds, and think nothing of it. But to those who are lost in dementia, the situation is different…”


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Posted by on February 20, 2013 in BOOKS


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