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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch, Page Two


by Oliver Sacks, ©2007; paperback 385 pp

Published by Vintage Books/Random House

This is Dr. Sacks’ tenth book, and anyone who has read his earlier writings will recognize his erudite-but-easy-going style. He is a famous neuroscientist and a careful researcher, but there is nothing dull or intimidating in his writings, because he writes simply and expressively, from the heart. His passion for his studies of the brain is infused with an obvious respect for both his patients and his readers. He is a writer who honors the human spirit.

In his preface, Sacks defines musicophilia: “...This propensity to music... shows itself in infancy, is manifest and central in every culture, and probably goes back to the very beginnings of our lies so deep in human nature that one is tempted to think of it as innate.”

He goes on to say: “... music remains fundamental and central in every culture. We humans are a musical species no less than a linguistic one.”

This is a four-part book, each part divided into chapters addressing specific examples of a broad subject. Part One is titled: “Haunted by Music,” and includes stories about sudden events of seizures that include musical hallucinations. The seizures are often caused by or tumors or epilepsy, but can also be the result of trauma to the head. One man, a surgeon, was even hit by lightning, and a short time later was consumed by a desire to hear piano music, followed by the need to learn how to play the piano, followed by a strong drive to compose.

A chapter in this first part will be of special interest to anyone who has ever been stuck with the incessant repetition of something like that fool Song That Has No End, echoing through the brain. The name for such catastrophes is 'earworms,' and they are hideously common, especially if they contain music picked up from television shows or advertisements. We whose brains have subjected us to such torture know that earworms depart only when they are good and ready, but in most cases they do (thank God) depart eventually.

Part Two, titled “A Range of Musicality,” discusses things like music lovers and would-be performers whose strengths are mismatched, i.e., someone whose technical facility is fine but whose performance lacks fire and passion, or someone who plays with great emotion, but whose choice of music lacks both judgment and taste. In both cases, the intentions and desires don’t match the players’ abilities.

This section also leads us to a technical description of a musician’s brain. Sacks refers to

“Gottfried Schlaug and his colleagues at Harvard , who made careful comparisons of the sizes of various brain structures. ...They (showed) that the corpus callosum ... that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, is enlarged in professional musicians and that a part of the auditory cortex, the planum temporale, has an asymmetric enlargement in musicians with absolute pitch ... (They) went on to show increased volumes of gray matter in motor, auditory and visuospatial areas of the cortex, as well as in the cerebellum. 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.”

There follows several chapters discussing the phenomena of absolute pitch, as well as its opposite, and oddities like musical savants, or synesthesia and music, a condition in which the hearer perceives music as sound plus color (as in “G-Flat is GREEN”).

Part Three, “Memory, Movement and Music” touches on matters like music’s connection to amnesia, aphasia, Tourette’s Syndrome, Rhythm and Movement, Music Therapy, and problems like Musician’s Dystonia (“Athletes of the Small Muscles”).

And the final part, titled “Emotion, Identity and Music,” is, perhaps, the most relevant of all for senior readers. It covers not only the illusive connections and evocations that music can bring to minds consumed by melancholia, dementia, or senility, but also the healing powers that music can have as the mind deals with loss and sorrow.

Sacks quotes a letter from a woman whose father was nearly a hundred years old, and had begun to lose his grip on reality. She provided him with a portable CD player, and when his mind began to wander, she would “put in a beloved piece of classical music, press the ‘play’ button and watch the transformation”.

“My father’s world became logical and it became clear. He could follow every note... There was no confusion here, no missteps, no getting lost, and, most amazing, no forgetting...This was home, more than all the homes he had ever lived in ...

“Sometimes my father would respond to the beauty of the music by simply weeping. How did this music thrill when all other thrills had been forgotten – my mother, young with a lovely face, my sister and I as children...the days of work, of food, of travel, of family?

“What did this music touch? Where was this landscape where there is no forgetting? How did it free another kind of memory, a memory of the heart not tethered to time or place or events or even loved ones?”

As Dr. Sacks then says: “Once one has seen such responses, one knows there is still a self to be called upon, even if music, and only music, can do the calling.”


Page Three>>

© 2008 Julia Sneden for

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