The Musical Mystery

Music is so ubiquitous and ancient in the human species—so integral to our nature—that we must be born to respond to it: there must be a music instinct. Just as we naturally take to language, as a matter of our innate endowment, so must music have a specific genetic basis, and be part of the very structure of the human brain.

An unmusical alien would be highly perplexed by our love of music—and other terrestrial species are left cold by what so transports us. Music is absolutely normal for members of our species, but utterly quirky. Moreover, it is known that music activates almost all the human brain: the sensory centers, the prefrontal cortex that underlies rational functions, the emotional areas (cerebellum, amygdala, and nucleus accumbens), the hippocampus for memory, and the motor cortex for movement. When you listen to a piece of music your brain is abuzz with intense neural activity.

Oliver Sacks is fascinated both by the normality of this oddity and by its abnormal manifestations. Daniel J. Levitin, in his recent book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, deals largely with the normal human response to music—particularly with the brain mechanisms that underlie ordinary human listening—but Sacks’s interest is more in the pathologies of musical response, not surprisingly in view of his occupation as a clinical neurologist. Where Levitin gives us the peculiarities of the everyday, Sacks ventures into the outlandish and exotic—into the deficits and excesses of the musical brain. Yet both authors recognize that the normal is exotic enough in itself, and the abnormal merely variations on a theme (so to speak).

In a sense, nothing about music is quite “normal,” except purely statistically. Sacks’s style and method in Musicophilia will be familiar to readers of his earlier works: he provides us with descriptive summaries of various cases he has studied or encountered, which blend the humanistic and the clinical in a uniquely Sacksian style (the adjective seems warranted). We never lose sight of the human being exhibiting the pathology, but we are also continually reminded of the role of the brain in producing both normality and abnormality. The person, for Sacks, is irreducibly a center of thought, feeling, and will, yet is also a puppet of the circuits and nuclei that make up the brain. The brain is our ineluctable fate, but the person is more than a mere syncopation of brain regions. And you have to live with the brain you’ve got, making the best of its contingent strengths and weaknesses, not the brain you might ideally have preferred. Accordingly, Sacks’s chapters contain little in the way of theory and explanation, or even systematic taxonomy, dwelling rather on the details of specific cases, with that unique mixture of empathy and detachment I mentioned. His prose style has become, perhaps, more restrained than in his earlier books, less prone to hyperbole or poetic flights; but the …

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