Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia.

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

The Music Man

What neuroscience can't tell us about music.

The man in the photograph has a piece of electronic gear clamped to his head. He is bald, bearded, wearing wire-rimmed glasses. His eyes are closed, his mouth open. With one hand he holds the equipment in place: two big leathery pads smothering his ears, joined by a strap that holds them in place like a vise, running overhead across the place where the brain is.

The man is Oliver Sacks—on the cover of his new book, Musicophilia—and he is, presumably, listening to music. But if we didn't know better—if headphones were not our age's replacement for the fedora and the pillbox hat—it would be possible to mistake them for some brain-measuring neurological device.

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This conceit fits Sacks' approach. The headphones are akin to the stethoscope. The doctor is taking his own vital signs; and in Musicophilia, the mismatch between the barebones figures in Sacks' "tales of music and the brain" and the richness of his own response to music suggests that, in the tussle between the hard science of neurology and the soft science of belles-lettres—between nature and culture—culture still has plenty to say.

In an era when music has become "head music," delivered through iPod earbuds with the steady efficiency of an IV drip, it was inevitable that music, like language, religion, sex, and politics, would be given the popular-neuroscience treatment—and so it was in Daniel Levitin's 2006 best seller This Is Your Brain on Music.But as that book suggested,and Sacks' book now confirms, music has a way of eluding the neuroscientists' tools and schemas. For now at least, it is better understood the old-school culturo-critical way, through the tools of memory, imagination, passion, and cultivated taste.

Signs of Sacks' musicophilia—an outsized passion for music—were manifest early on. The son of a London doctor who owned an 1894 Bechstein grand piano and always had a set of miniature orchestral scores in his pocket, the young Sacks read The Oxford Companion to Music as if it were The Arabian Nights, "an inexhaustible source of musical stories." The leitmotif in his new book is the habit of referring back to musical episodes in his previous books, and it is Sacks himself who is his own most interesting patient when it comes to musical symptoms.

His retelling of the "complex musico-motor events" described in A Leg To Stand On points us to the core of his enterprise: a fascination with music as a cluster of patterns and imagery as unfathomably complex as the human brain, and as vital as life itself. Sacks wrenched his leg while mountain-climbing and managed to get down the mountain before nightfall by singing "The Old Volga Boatman"; he found himself "musicked along" as its rhythms and melodies made his mind forget pain. In the hospital, he listened to a cassette of a Mendelssohn violin concerto over and over again. Then, after weeks of struggling to walk, he stood and found that "the concerto started to play itself with intense vividness in my mind. In this moment, the natural rhythm and melody of walking came back to me, … and along with this [came] the feeling of my leg as alive, as part of me once again."

Sacks pursues new variations on the theme with his signature narrative blend of particular cases and neurological lore, at once creepy and cocktail-party colorful. We learn, for example, that the malady known as "fear of music" was first diagnosed in a 19th-century music critic who had a seizure at the opera and wound up running for cover in terror whenever he heard a brass band in the street. Famous people from Vladimir Nabokov to Ulysses S. Grant to the James brothers, Sacks tells us, seem to have suffered from "amusia"—the almost total inability to respond to music.

The material has the distinctive Sacks touch: at once earnest, tender, and slightly amused. But the anecdotes about music and the neurological disorders associated with it—which are what the "tales" really amount to—reveal surprisingly little about music or about the brain, other than that the mystery and vitality of music are useful correlatives to the brain's mystery and vitality. In recounting the circumstances of individual patients, Sacks doesn't evoke the sound of music or the ways sound takes shape as music in the brain. The case studies become examples of the gap between what happens in our brains and what even our most literate experts can say about it.

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