Alan Meerow

Last August, we lost one of the most engaged and engaging minds of the past century. Oliver Wolf Sacks died at the age of 82, but left behind a legacy of written works exploring myriad aspects of the human mind (his first love), with side trips into botany (his other great passion).

Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Sacks was a physician, clinician and neurologist, born and educated in the UK, but who spent the better part of his professional life in the United States. To the general public, he is probably best known for his book “Awakenings,” an autobiographical account of his efforts to treat patients suffering from encephalitis lethargica, a type of “sleeping sickness,” which became a successful movie with Robert DiNiro and Robin Williams (playing Sacks).

I would encourage anyone of enquiring mind to explore Sacks’ many books, but there is one most appropriate to the title of this blog: “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” published in 2007, a book that voyages to, in the words of Washington Post reviewer Peter D. Kramer, “the intersection of music and neurology — music as affliction and music as treatment.”

In his preface, Sacks invokes the Overlords, a highly advanced alien race from Arthur C. Clarke’s classic “Childhoods End,” who attend a concert on Earth but can make no sense of it, as they have no neural function that can respond the way humans clearly do to musical intonation. He concludes that love of music something innate to the human experience, to our minds and to our emotions.

Photo copyright The Atlantic.

“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional, “Sacks writes. “It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.”

The book is organized in four parts: Haunted by Music; A Range of Musicality; Memory, Movement and Music; and Emotions, Identity and Music. Each collects a mix of case histories of odd musical distemper, sudden onset of musical abilities as well as their loss. These anecdotes often lead to short forays into history, science, but always return to the transcendent power of music and it’s almost primal connections to our brain.

The first tale in part 1, “A Bolt from the Blue: Sudden Musicophilia,” begins with the story of an orthopedic surgeon who, after being struck by lightning and having a resultant near death out-of-body experience, develops first an insatiable desire to listen to piano music. He taught himself to play, and next was visited by an endless stream of music in his head which he was compelled to transcript. He literally became possessed by composing and playing music to the exclusion of all else. While he continued to work as a surgeon, his musicophilia led to an upheaval in his life, divorce, but also a deep sense of spirituality. Sacks gives a few other case histories, though none quite as dramatic as the surgeon’s, and relates the relatively meager hypotheses about the neurological basis’s of sudden musicophilia. A following chapter describes incidents of music actually causing seizures in patients, which can lead to developing an aversion to it.

In “Brainworms, Sticky Music, and Catchy Tunes,” Sacks discusses how snippets of music can turn into an object of mental compulsion (how many of you have said at least once, “I can’t this song out of my head?”). In the chapter “Musical Hallucinations,” Sacks dissects the phenomenon of unbidden music heard inside the head, sometimes associated with injury to the auditory parts of the brain or even the ear.

Musicophilia_front_coverSynesthesia is a syndrome wherein the synesthete experiences visual associations with music. Sacks devotes a chapter to this compelling perceptual anomaly (“The Key of Clear Green: Synesthesia and Music” in Part II) that I found fascinating, so alien is it to my relationship with music. It affects one in 2000 people, with a strong gender bias (6:1 ratio of women to men). For several of the composers to whom Sacks introduces us, the experience of color in association with certain keys, notes, or chords, is as fundamental a part of their musical life as the auditory. The visual phenomena can include specific shapes and patterns. Synesthesia can also occur between music and our sense of taste.

Aphasia is the sudden loss of language ability – spoken and written. This and other conditions in which music has shown healing prowess, is documented in Part III, “Memory, Movement and Music.” Another peculiar affliction, dystonia, results in a musician losing control of the precise finger movements required to play their chosen instrument. Here, music is not the cure; botox treatment has shown some success.

In the last part of the book, “Emotion, Identity, and Music,” Sacks wanders through the avenues of music and dreams, the sudden loss of emotional response to music, the way music can sometimes “pierce the heart,” as well as the sudden onset of musical ability in certain types of dementia. Sacks describes Williams syndrome, a peculiar form of developmental handicap in which the individual exhibits a mix of intellectual abilities and defects. Though rarely exceeding 60 in IQ, people with this disorder are both remarkably friendly and kind, but often show a deep and abiding musical affinity.

Ultimately, “Musicophilia” leaves the reader with a deepened appreciation of the essential if ineffable way music infiltrates our lives, inspires, and heals. Thank goodness we are not bereft of the means to bring it deep into ourselves. We are not the Overlords, Oliver Sacks reminds us.


Alan Meerow works as a tropical plant research biologist in Florida and is the managing editor of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation blog pages.

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