Musicophilia, by Oliver Sacks


Musicophilia is the sixth Oliver Sacks book I’ve read, some of which I’ve read more than once.

Like most of his books, this is a collection of case histories, or at least theories and musings based on case histories. The unifying theme is that all the cases have something to do with music.

For instance, there are people who have suffered some kind of neurological damage that changes how they experience music, perhaps prevents them from understanding it or enjoying it or both. There are people who can’t stop songs—often annoying popular songs from their youth—from running through their heads all day every day. There are people who either have little or no ability to initiate movement (like the patients in the book and movie Awakenings) or who can’t really function or interpret sense-data (like the title patient of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), but who then somehow do much better in the presence of music. And a lot more.

On average, I was maybe a bit less drawn in by these cases than by those in the other Sacks books I’ve read. There’s definitely interesting stuff here, but my mind wandered a little more than it usually does reading a Sacks book. A lot of the cases were similar enough to run together in my mind. Not quite as high a percentage as usual were all that striking to me.

That’s just in comparison with how I’ve experienced some of his other books though. This is still a good read, and I still found much of it fascinating.

When I read Sacks, I invariably think a lot about myself and my own mental functioning, and how it relates to what he’s writing about. If anything I felt my mind going there more than usual with this book.

Sacks writes of the difference between having an intellectual understanding of music, and having an emotional appreciation of it. He writes as if he has plenty of both, and that normal people in general have plenty of both, and that it’s striking to encounter someone who doesn’t and to try to imagine how much differently they experience life.

I don’t know if it’s how he’s describing it or the actual phenomenon, but he makes me feel like I’m probably abnormal and deficient in both respects.

To start with the emotional, mostly I feel like I go through life enjoying music as much as the average person. I virtually always have music on in the car, and I have music going at home a fair amount of the time when I’m not doing something that requires concentration on other sense-data, like reading, writing, or watching television. I’ve gradually built up a collection of hundreds of CDs. I have my favorite artists and genres. It’s maybe not a huge part of my life, but it’s significant.

But the way he writes about it, I got that same feeling as reading his wonder that the autistic woman in An Anthropologist on Mars couldn’t perceive the overwhelming beauty and grandeur of the mountains but just said she “liked” them, or they were “pretty.” I had that “uh oh” moment then of thinking that I’m probably closer to the autistic woman than to him. And that’s how it was reading him describe the experience of music for non-brain damaged people as powerful and transcendent and such. Again it made me wonder if I’m on the outside looking in with this stuff.

I mean I think I like it, but maybe there’s a lot I’m missing. Put it this way: When I’m most fully open to beautiful scenery or music or sensory stuff like that, when it hits me hardest and I appreciate it the most, it’s probably about 5% as emotionally powerful as the moments when I feel most in touch with my love for the most important people in my life. Which to me feels like a lot, because that’s 5%-10% of something extraordinarily strong.

But is it a lot? When other people hear an orchestra playing Mozart, or gaze out over the Grand Canyon, does it affect them emotionally much more than that 5%?

And insofar as I do like music, say, surely a lot of that isn’t an appreciation of something inherent in the music but is based on what I associate it with at some conscious or subconscious level. I’m sure I developed an emotional attachment to certain artists and genres in my youth, or I appreciate the politics in certain lyrics, or I have some mildly favorable sense of classical music as being “classy,” or jazz and blues as having a certain authenticity to them or being culturally interesting to me. And it’s equally apparent that disco or country western or hip hop have certain negative associations for me. They aren’t the music I grew up with, the music the people I hung out with in my formative years liked, the music I associate at some level with people or situations I admire or am interested in.

Play the music of some alien planet for me that I have zero associations with, and chances are I’d be clueless as to whether it has some objective beauty or is worthless.

As far as the intellectual understanding of music, I feel more clearly deficient there. In fact, I don’t even have a basic grasp of the terminology. When he writes about pitch, tone, melody, rhythm, meter, being in or out of tune, being in or out of key, etc., I’m really not getting it. Some of those I have a very rough sense what they mean, and others I literally have no idea beyond that they are terms that apply to sound or music.

Some of that is maybe just that I never took time to learn it. I don’t know that I could get much from just looking at the definitions, but if someone demonstrated them to me presumably I could understand. (“OK, this and this have the same pitch but different tone. Whereas this and this have the same tone but different pitch. Hear the difference?”)

But I think there’s something more lacking in me. For instance visually (though in many respects I’m not at all a visual person), it’s not like I’m puzzled what it means for something to be well-lit, or blurry, or multi-colored, etc. These terms aren’t obscure to me, I don’t need to look them up in a dictionary, I don’t need someone to demonstrate what they mean with examples. They’re all quite obvious and straightforward concepts for me.

For “normal” people are the sound terms analogous to that?

So maybe I don’t “get” music in some important sense.

I remember having a particularly embarrassing moment one Mardi Gras. I was given a tambourine by a friend who was a member of a little strolling jazz band, and told I would be allowed to walk behind the band and play it. It was strongly implied, by the way, that this was a huge and rare honor, and I took it as such.

However, I then had no clue what to do. I had a vague sense that the tambourine is just a kind of jolly noisemaker, that you rattle or beat it at random to contribute to a general air of revelry, but the puzzled and dirty looks of the band members and some of the people lining the street quickly disabused me of that notion.

So evidently there’s a right and a wrong way to play it in relation to what sounds are coming from the other instruments, but heck if I knew what that is. I made some minimal effort to pick up on visual clues of what others were doing to see what I should be doing, but I couldn’t make any sense of it. Mostly I tried to play as little as possible and at as low a volume as possible so as not to call attention to myself and my obvious cluelessness about this stuff, but that didn’t work, judging from the fact that one of the other band hangers-on snatched the tambourine from my hand with a disapproving look after a couple minutes and took over my role.

Similarly, the two or three efforts I made to dance in my life I simply tried to mimic what the person I was with was doing. Their encouraging “OK, now just go with the music! Do what you feel!” had only a tiny bit more meaning to me than if they had offered the same advice about how to translate ancient Sanskrit.

I say a tiny bit more rather than none at all, because I’m sure, for instance, that when I’m listening to music I’ll unconsciously bob my head slightly in time with it, say. So music is not completely incomprehensible to me, but I have to think the average person “gets it” both emotionally and intellectually more than I do.

Well, I don’t know. I still think I like music, even if only in a way that Sacks would see as deficient.

I enjoy this material though, for precisely this “problem of other minds” stuff. I like trying to figure out how what goes on inside other people differs from what goes on inside me.

Plus I enjoy it just because Sacks is such a humane and intellectually curious guy. As I said in writing about An Anthropologist on Mars, I’d love to be examined thoroughly by him or someone very like him, neurologically and psychologically. What a wonderful facilitation to self-understanding that could be.


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