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30 december 2007
If I am in the New Books section of a library and I find a new Oliver Sacks, I drop anything else I may have gathered, check out the volume, and move it to the top of my unwieldy queue of to-read-nexts. Musicophilia did not disappoint last week when I did just that. Though it draws more extensively on Sacks's previous works than those previous works did on themselves, it is less a repackaging of material than the detection of a master thread that has run through all of Sacks's writing to date: the unique, evolutionally inexplicable centrality of music to our brains and our selves.
Music arguably distinguishes humans most clearly from other animal species. Rhythm in particular is unique to humans; Sacks quotes work by Aniruddh Patel and collaborators that shows that even trained circus animals cannot truly synchronize their movements to an auditory beat in the way that any classroom of human toddlers can (239-240). Still less can animals produce even the kind of simple harmonic structures that your basic garage band can achieve.
Musicophilia shows, however, that music is more than just an artifice assembled by our brainier kind. Like language, music is innate. And like language, music is wired into the brain in peculiar modular ways that only become apparent when some trauma isolates these musical modules from the rest of our cognitive activities. And unlike language, music seems to serve no particular adaptive purpose. It may make life worth living, but it brings no known advantage to the player, singer, or listener.
As in so many of his other books, from Awakenings through The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to An Anthropologist on Mars, Sacks offers numerous case histories that show us how manifold our ostensibly integrated selves can be. Some kinds of trauma, from brain injury to simple stress, can produce purely musical hallucinations. (If you hear voices, you may be psychotic; if you hear Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, as Sacks once did, you are assuredly not.)
Injuries to the brain may bring on a flood of musicality, or remove musical capacities altogether, producing amusia, just as other injuries produce analogous deficits of speech in aphasia. Amusia is not necessarily linked to aphasia at all, and some of the most suggestive case histories in Musicophilia are those where aphasic patients can sing – can indeed be brought back to a limited use of language by therapists who take advantage of the brain's quite separate capacity for song.
Most compelling among the many cases presented by Sacks are those where profoundly amnesiac patients show a remarkable gift for music. The most extended of these stories involves Clive Wearing, an English musicologist and choral conductor afflicted with "the most severe amnesia ever recorded" (203). Wearing cannot form any new memories that last for more than the briefest moment, and has lost access to almost all of his past. As with many amnesiacs, his "semantic" memory is still largely present: he knows what a Prime Minister is, but he has no recollection of Tony Blair.
With the devoted help of his wife Deborah, Clive Wearing lives in a perpetual present that extends at most a few seconds into the past; Sacks's conversations with Wearing take the form of meeting him anew every few moments. But Wearing can play entire pieces on his piano. What's more, he can conduct choirs, and not just in rote, muscle-memory fashion. He can respond to and interact with the multiple stimuli provided by real live performers, just as he can improvise on the keyboard.
At some level, music – not just appreciation or recapitulation – survives in Clive Wearing at a very high level when basic memory, a sine qua non for cognitive navigation of the world, has completely disappeared. While Wearing's case is near-fantastic, others that Sacks adduces show us what may happen to us all in time. Woody Geist, an a cappella baritone, exhibits the familiar course of Alzheimer's, losing much of his memory and most of his ability to cope independently in the world. Yet he continues to sing professionally in public, with no loss of musical ability. Is his musical self a different being, revealed by the stripping-away of his other mental attributes? Or is musicality perhaps the real self, inhibited by social strictures and the powerful, obviously adaptive and often competing claims of language?
I hear music in my head constantly, and often tap its rhythms or hum to myself. I can also remember songs I heard once on the radio twenty years ago. I am no musical savant: my voice is frequently off-key and I play the piano, at best, like a percussion instrument. Like many of the savants and sports of the musical world that Oliver Sacks introduces in Musicophilia, I have always assumed that everyone is just like me. And while others may not share my annoying musical tics and tricks of memory, Musicophilia suggests that the savants and I may be right. Inside all of us, there may be a core of music well-surrounded by the more inessential structures of self.
Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain. New York: Knopf, 2007.