I’m sure most people reading this are fascinated by music and the fact that is so evocative. More then simply the auditory sense, these configurations of sounds and tones, rhythmically arranged can convey emotion, bring back memories, keep you up all night or put you to sleep. Did we evolve to be able to appreciate music or is it somehow innate? These are big questions, but the neurology underlying the perception (and creation/performance) of music is most definitely fascinating. Why is the human brain such an efficient musical processor, or indeed, in a small minority of cases, completely unable to comprehend music? Why does the sound of someone learning the violin drive some people nuts whilst others will happily sing out of tune in the shower every morning?
It this intrigues you as much as it does me then you could do a lot worse than reading Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. Sack’s previous book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat was a series of case studies on a number of patients suffering from different neurological disorders affecting mental faculties such as memory, perception and speech. Musicophilia, however, details patients with disorders relating to music and teaches us a lot about its neurological basis along the way.
Sacks studies patients such as the man with little more than a passing interest in music who is struck by lightening and then becomes completely obsessed with the piano, becoming a very accomplished musician. He discusses brainworms, when those annoying tunes stuck in your head become pathological and won’t go away. He investigates musical hallucinations which can’t be distinguished from music itself and synaesthetes who “hear” music in their other senses. He describes the condition of amusia, which makes it impossible to piece sounds together into “music”, instead hearing something akin to “pots and pans being thrown around the kitchen”. Sacks also touches upon the therapeutic effects of music, in the treatment of dementia, for example.
These touching, yet fascinating tales highlight how complex, yet delicate these systems we’ve developed for enjoying something we take for granted really are. Next time you are rocking Ableton Live with Griid on your iPad to a rapturous audience in a sweaty club, think about the grey pulsating mass that allows you to be doing what you are doing right now – a humbling thought!