Thursday, November 27, 2008


Musicophelia by Oliver Sacks is a physician's perspective on music and the brain, organized by his experience of departures from the normal. We may better understand our more average selves by understanding those of us whose minds are not like us.

He makes an excellent case for the primacy of music in human evolution. Music is the glue of the human community, giving us the evolutionary advantage of groups. Other species do not experience music which fills a large part of our brains.

I like a book where one can generalize from specific cases.

There is a story of a man with no memory at all, a man who when he closes his eyes and opens them again has forgotten all of his life before. In spite of this he could still play the piano and organ and conduct. Someone would need to bring him to the rehearsal and set the correct score on the stand.

This story reminded me of a conclusion I made about driving a car early in my experience of it. My subconscious was an excellent driver. I could day dream away and it would carefully signal, stop at stop signs and lights, avoid other cars, even shift gears all on its own. There was only one thing it couldn't do--remember where we were going. I could get myself home without thinking, but any new destination required attention. I ended up in some strange places. I digress.

Sacks tells how the ears reclaim parts of the brain unused by the blind.

He describes the therapeutic effect of music on those with Parkinsons.

He has described people dreaming about music, including an anecdote about Berlioz composing a symphony in a dream, as I once recall doing. Mine was remarkable, perhaps somewhere between Tchaikovsky and Brahms, but disappeared when I awoke.

For many the favorite story is of the man who became a musician after being struck by lightning.

It gives perhaps a better idea of how musical we are than more technical brain mapping writing. In many ways we are music.

The section on music and emotion is perhaps a bit cursory. Whole books have been written on this subject alone, and it probably has not yet been adequately described. He describes an emotionless man who nevertheless sang Irish songs with emotion. I think I would have described him as performing the Irish songs in the appropriate style. The music and the phrasing are one. If you have learned a song with a certain style, then that style is one with the music, and when you performed it, it would sound emotional. Only classical musicians with their brains chained to pages of written notes, notes entirely devoid of emotion, could imagine the two things to be separate. A full description of the relationship between emotion and music has not yet been written.

He needs to incorporate the idea of phrasing into his conceptual framework to carefully distinguish it from emotion. The musician phrases. The listener feels. Of course, the musician is a listener to himself.

No comments: