Like most of Oliver Sacks’s books, Musicophilia is a collection of case histories, or at least theories and musings based on case histories. The unifying theme of this collection is that all the cases have something to do with music.
For instance, there are people who have suffered some kind of neurological damage that changes how they experience music, perhaps prevents them from understanding it or enjoying it or both. There are people who can’t stop songs–often annoying popular songs from their youth–from running through their heads all day every day. There are people who either have little or no ability to initiate movement (like the patients in the book and movie Awakenings) or who can’t really function or interpret sense-data (like the title patient of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), but who then somehow do much better in the presence of music. And a lot more.
On average, I was maybe a bit less drawn in by these cases than by those in the other Sacks books I’ve read. There’s definitely interesting stuff here, but my mind wandered a little more than it usually does reading a Sacks book. A lot of the cases were similar enough to run together in my mind. Not quite as high a percentage as usual were all that attention-grabbing to me.
That’s just in comparison with how I’ve experienced some of his other books though. This is still a good read, and I still found much of it fascinating.
One of the best things about reading a Sacks book is the way it causes you to reflect on yourself and your own mental functioning. When I read Sacks, I invariably think a lot about myself, and how what goes on inside me might relate to what he’s writing about. If anything I felt my mind going there more than usual with this book.
Sacks writes of the difference between having an intellectual understanding of music, and having an emotional appreciation of it. He writes as if he has plenty of both, and that normal people in general have plenty of both, and that it’s striking to encounter someone who doesn’t and to try to imagine how much differently they experience life.
I don’t know if it’s how he’s describing it or the actual phenomenon, but he makes me feel like I’m probably abnormal and deficient in both respects.
To start with the emotional, mostly I feel like I go through life enjoying music as much as the average person. I virtually always have music on in the car, and I have music going at home a fair amount of the time when I’m not doing something that requires concentration on other sense-data, like reading, writing, or watching television. I’ve gradually built up a collection of hundreds of CDs. I have my favorite artists and genres. It’s maybe not a huge part of my life, but it’s significant.
But I don’t know that I experience anything close to the kind of powerful and transcendent emotions in connection with music that he describes as normal for non-brain damaged people. In this and other books (where he talks about autistic people being incapable of appreciating the majesty of mountain scenery, etc.), he makes me feel uncomfortably similar to some of the people he treats, like he and most of the rest of the world are having experiences I’m not.
I mean I always thought I liked music, but maybe there’s a lot I’m missing. Put it this way: when I’m most fully open to beautiful scenery or music or sensory stuff like that, when it hits me hardest and I appreciate it the most, it’s probably about 5%-10% as emotionally powerful as the moments when I feel most in touch with another human being, when I am most aware of my love for the most important people in my life.
Now, to me that feels like a lot, because that’s 5%-10% of something extraordinarily strong. But is it a lot? When other people hear an orchestra playing Mozart, or gaze out over the Grand Canyon, does it affect them emotionally much more than that 5%-10% that it affects me?
And insofar as I do like music, say, surely a lot of that isn’t an appreciation of something inherent in the music but is based on what I associate it with at some conscious or subconscious level. I’m sure I developed an emotional attachment to certain artists and genres in my youth, or I appreciate the politics in certain lyrics, or I have some mildly favorable sense of classical music as being “classy,” or jazz and blues as having a certain authenticity to them or being culturally interesting to me. And it’s equally apparent that disco or country western or hip hop have certain negative associations for me. They aren’t the music I grew up with, the music the people I hung out with in my formative years liked, the music I associate at some level with people or situations I admire or am interested in.
Play the music of Mars for me that I have zero associations with, and chances are I’d be clueless as to whether it has some objective beauty or is worthless.
As far as the intellectual understanding of music, I feel even more clearly deficient there. In fact, I don’t even have a basic grasp of the terminology. When he writes about pitch, tone, melody, rhythm, meter, being in or out of tune, being in or out of key, etc., I’m really not getting it. Some of those I have a very rough sense what they mean, and others I literally have no idea beyond that they are terms that apply to sound or music.
Some of that is maybe just that I never took time to learn it. I don’t know that I could get much from just looking at the definitions, but if someone demonstrated them to me presumably I could understand. (“OK, this and this have the same pitch but different tone. Whereas this and this have the same tone but different pitch. Hear the difference?”)
But I think there’s something more lacking in me. For instance visually (though in many respects I’m not at all a visual person), it’s not like I’m puzzled what it means for something to be well-lit, or blurry, or multi-colored, etc. These terms aren’t obscure to me, I don’t need to look them up in a dictionary, I don’t need someone to demonstrate what they mean with examples. They’re all quite obvious and straightforward concepts for me.
For “normal” people are the sound terms analogous to that?
So maybe I don’t “get” music in some important sense.
I enjoy this material though, for precisely this “problem of other minds” stuff. I like trying to figure out how what goes on inside other people differs from what goes on inside me.
Plus I enjoy it just because Sacks is such a humane and intellectually curious guy. I’ve always wanted to be thoroughly examined neurologically and psychologically by him or someone very like him. What a wonderful facilitation to self-understanding that could be.