Oliver Sacks Maps The Intersection Between Music And The Brain


If there is anyone who owes everything to Bach, it is certainly God. -Emil Cioran

“Without music, life would be a mistake” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in Twilight of musicophilia-bookthe Idols. The German philosopher hints at a timeless feeling. Some people feel starved without music while others find its affect flat. But music is a phenomenon binding every age and culture, forming an intricate part of people’s lives. It may even have preceded speech. But unlike words, songs have no obvious meaning—they’re abstract melodies able to stir powerful emotions, and humans are magnetically drawn to song, what Oliver Sacks dubs “musicophilia.” The late naturalist, neurologist, and prolific author offers insight into the brain’s lust for music in Musicophilia. With lucid prose Sacks spotlights musicians, patients, and ordinary persons, and illustrates how neurology interacts with melody.

Music possess strange qualities that defy intuition: distorting time, creating space, evoking memories and stirring emotions. But there is no central brain structure responsible for listening to music. Pitch, timing, and rhythm are analyzed independently and form a cohesive experience. Some people are more drawn than others. Musicophilia is rich with examples of minds intricately intertwined with music. But Sacks’ most fascinating illustrations exemplify music’s power to invigorate, to give life back to people: the therapeutic power of music.

Matt Giordano is a gifted drummer who plays to funnel his Tourette’s Syndrome, exerting control over involuntary ticks. And he participates in drum circles with other Touretters.

“Music here had a double power: first to reconfigure brain activity, and bring calm and focus to people who were sometimes distracted or preoccupied by incessant tics and impulses; and second, to promote a musical and social bonding with others, so that what began as a miscellany of isolated, often distressed or self-conscious individuals almost instantly became a cohesive group with a single aim—a veritable drum orchestra under Matt’s baton.”

Music’s demand for attention helps Tourette’s sufferers channel their tics creatively. And it acts as glue for Touretters. For music, in a primal sense, strengthens social bonds. “Rhythm turns listeners into participants, makes listening active and motoric, and synchronizes the brains and minds (and, since emotion is always intertwined with music, the ‘hearts’) of all who participate.” The drum circle synchronized and found harmony, free from the chaotic impulses driven by their Tourettes.

Perhaps nowhere is music’s power exhibited more than through patients with dementia. Music acts like amber, preserving the self against neural degradation. Sixty-seven year old Woody lost everyday knowledge and event memory. Woody’s unable to tie a tie or answer casual questions such as “What does this say?” Without working memory he can’t participate in the world, until a CD of him singing with his capella group proves his musicality locked away from the ravages of Alzheimer’s.

“Finding, remembering anew that he can sing is profoundly reassuring to Woody, as the exercise of any skill or competence must be—and it can stimulate his feelings, his imagination, his sense of humor and creativity, and his sense of identity as nothing else can. It can enliven him, calm him, focus and engage him. It can give him back himself, and not least, it can charm others, arouse their amazement and admiration—reactions more and more necessary to someone who, in his lucid moments, is painfully aware of his tragic disease and sometimes says that he feels, ‘broken inside.’”

Everyday persons can be equally subject to music’s influence. Tunes impose themselves without apology. A forgotten song pops from the void of memory and hijacks the mind. While the 5PM commuter sings to the world as if possessed, and the same playlist provides enjoyment until fizzling without obvious reason. And while some songs heighten our moods, others offer relief from difficult situations.

“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. 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. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him; anyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.”

Oliver Sacks’s collection of case studies, interlaced with personal anecdotes, is both comprehensive and profound. Musicophilia is the perfect read for anyone interested in the art or the brain. Complement the work with Sacks’ book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.