Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia.

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 8 2007 12:01 PM

The Music Man

What neuroscience can't tell us about music.

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Yet the charmed circle of oddly afflicted music lovers whom Sacks has gathered around him help him explain and evoke music far more vividly than the scientific literature can. Scattered through the book, they come to seem a merry band of musicophiles who are keeping classical music alive through their passion for it. They are 60 or older. They have pianos in their apartments. They seem to play or listen to music every spare minute. They habitually, and vividly, express their extramusical experiences—of happiness and sadness, sickness and health—in musical terms, as in the case of a composer who was in a car crash and later found that her perfect pitch had disappeared.

The leader of the band is Sacks himself. Here he is describing a bout of amusia in 1974: "I was driving along the Bronx River Parkway, listening to a Chopin ballade on the radio, when a strange alteration of the music occurred. The beautiful piano tones started to lose their pitch and their character and were reduced, within a couple of minutes, to a sort of toneless banging with an unpleasant metallic reverberation, as if the ballade were being played with a hammer on sheet metal." It may be that this sudden cacophony is a musical disorder—but in the telling, it seems an instance of Sacks, in the car on the highway, instinctively using his response to music as a measure of a fugitive inner state.

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A man making his own experiences and those of the people he knows the representatives of the human condition: It sounds like a formula for bad science. And yet the formula for bad science turns out to be the formula for good writing. When he describes his friends, and himself, too, Sacks suddenly writes about music as music, at once a language and a mode of celebration that summons extreme but not unreasonable passions.

Take the story of Leon Fleisher, the concert pianist—the nearest thing to a fully told "tale" in the book. A child prodigy, Fleisher was renowned as a pianist when, "at the age of thirty-six, he found the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand starting to curl under his hand when he played. … [T]he more he fought, the worse the spasm became." He gave up performing and a doctor diagnosed his problem as "dystonia." Fleisher fell into despair, then pulled himself up by playing works written for one hand. Medicine advanced, and he found treatments for the spastic muscles. Thirty years after he was first stricken, control of the hand returned—and he returned to the stage.

In the meantime, Fleisher and Sacks had become friends, and Sacks concludes the tale with an account of the pianist's visit to the doctor's apartment—and the old Bechstein. "Fleisher sat at the piano and carefully, tenderly, stretched each finger in turn, and then, with arms and hands almost flat, he started to play. He played a piano transcription of Bach's 'Sheep May Safely Graze,' as arranged for piano by Egon Petri. Never in its 112 years, I thought, had this piano been played by such a master. … [H]e had matched his playing to the instrument, to bring out its greatest potential, its particularity."

Is this a tale of music and the brain, of science and a human obsession? In some sense, yes. But in another sense, it is a tale that would not be out of place in the Oxford Companion to Music that Sacks read as a boy in London, or among the tales of Henry James if only James had not suffered from amusia. It is the tale of a few moments in which an old chorale, an antique piano, a once-disabled hand, and a prodigy made wise by adversity called forth music together—in the presence of a listener with the ability to make sense of the experience. It is a tale, in other words, of how culture is made and passed from one person to another, from one era to the next. Sacks the scientist is not wholly absent, but Sacks the musicophile is wholly present and finds words for music and its effects that elude him elsewhere. And he seems to know it: "Fleisher seemed to distill the beauty, drop by drop, like an alchemist, into flowing notes of almost unbearable beauty—and, after this, there was nothing more to be said."

Paul Elie, the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (2003), is writing a book about the music of Bach.