3 November 2007

Musicophilia

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks (Picador)

It is a remarkable fact that if I merely type “the Mission: Impossible theme tune” or “Beethoven’s Fifth”, you will probably start humming to yourself. We take it for granted, but how is it possible? What is going on in our brains? Oliver Sacks, the neurologist author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, here devotes a book to the cognitive miracles of music. “It really is a very odd business,” he muses, “that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads.”

Sacks’s deeply warm and sympathetic study is about pathologies of musical response and what they might teach us about the “normal” faculty of music. It reports on fascinating new findings from anatomy — a musician’s brain is easily distinguishable on a scan from those of others; and the passage from ear to brain is not a one-way conduit but works both ways, the brain being able to tune the ears, as it were. But mostly Musicophilia is about the more mysterious, and currently inexplicable, ways in which music affects the brain, for good or ill. And when it affects the brain, it affects the whole person, as Plato knew, seeking to ban some types of music from his Republic for the health of the citizenry. Shakespeare’s Richard II, meanwhile, could have provided an epigraph to Sacks’s book – the King at one point complains:

This music mads me. Let it sound no more;
For though it have holp madmen to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad.

Sacks tells some very moving stories about those with terrifyingly profound amnesia, or Alzheimer’s disease, for whom music can “restore them to themselves”. People with aphasia can be taught to speak again through singing. On the other hand, previously healthy people begin to have “musical hallucinations”, blasted by intrusive ghostly music during every waking second; and others have seizures in response to music, or “musicogenic epilepsy” — which, intriguingly, can be selective. One woman Sacks cites “had seizures only in response to ‘modern, dissonant music,’ never in response to classical or romantic music” — and her husband was a composer of the type of music that gave her seizures, which one suspects may be a hint. But such a violent response to certain music might be more common than suspected: “Many people, [one researcher thought], might start to get a queer feeling – disturbing, perhaps frightening – when they heard certain music, but then would immediately retreat from the music, turn it off, or block their ears, so that they did not progress to a full-blown seizure.” Indeed, certain styles of free jazz have always made me physically nauseous.

There is, of course, a continuum between the pathological states that Sacks discusses and everyday experiences of music. The phenomenon of “brainworms” — irritating tunes and jingles that get lodged in our heads — is only one step away from full-blown musical hallucination, and Sacks also compares it to the obsessive ticcing of Tourette’s syndrome. It is intriguing, too, to wonder where on the continuum certain historical figures could be placed. Here, for example, is Tchaikovsky as a child, weeping in bed: “This music! It is here in my head. Save me from it!” Was he suffering from vivid musical hallucinations, which he learned to manage by writing them down? Here, too, is Shostakovich, refusing to have a piece of shrapnel removed from his head, because when he tilted his head in a certain way he could hear music, which he incorporated into his compositions.

At the other end of the continuum are those Sacks describes as “amusic”, who do not seem to understand or feel music at all. He considers with pity the case of Vladimir Nabokov, who famously said he experienced music merely as “an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds”; he also wonders about how little music is mentioned in Henry James’s work.

And yet even profound amusia might be just an exaggerated form of a dysfunction, or adaptation, that affects us all. We might be drawn to this conclusion in a roundabout way, by seeing that, contrastingly, other people are awakened to profound musical powers after some kind of brain injury. A 42-year-old man struck by lightning suddenly experiences an unquenchable thirst for music, learns to play the piano, and starts to compose. In a wonderful footnote, Sacks offers his own wry confession that “in 1965 … I was taking massive doses of amphetamines”, and experienced a heightening of his powers of musical memory and transcription, although his abstract reasoning was shot to pieces. This, he suggests, might be the effect of suppressing the work of the temporal lobes. And so the intriguing hypothesis develops that we might all have such latent musical talents, if only we could find the spigot and turn it.

Sacks also describes a rare congenital disorder called Williams syndrome, in which people may have quite severe degrees of mental “retardation”, but also an extraordinary musical facility, playing back any piece on first hearing. Though he never exactly spells it out, the melancholy supposition arises that a repression of musical potential is the price we pay for our powers of ratiocination. Some might think the price is too high.