Monday, February 16, 2009

Oliver Sacks - Musicophilia - Tales of music and the brain

Just like the subtitle says, this is a collection of stories about our fascinating brain, and its musical (dis)abilities. Oliver Sacks is a Jewish atheist and physician who has written many books (The man who mistook his wife for a hat might be the most well-known) and has collected many stories over the years.

This is a fun book, due to its stories, but as the brain is still so unknown, no real answers are given. It's more like a collection of thoughts and ideas of how the brain might work. The importance of music is thrilling. It makes you want to force every parent, every school, to put every kid through musical schooling! Music makes the brain grow (enhancing mathematical, verbal and visuospatial abilities (p101)) and it can cure, or at least help, all kinds of mental disorders (Parkinson's, Tourette's, dementia). Tod Machover, at MIT is trying to democratize music, making it available to all, by making computer systems like Guitar Hero and other interactive systems.

Most people "have a radio in the brain" - the brain plays all kinds of music to us, in some only small clips, in some full symphonies! Is this the real source of musicality? Music that is created and just has to come out? Like Schumann talked about "the inner hearing of wondrously beautiful pieces of music, fully formed and complete!" (p56) Shostakovich was even more sophisticated: "Shostakovich, however, was reluctant to have the metal removed and no wonder: Since the fragment had been there, he said, each time he leaned his head to one side he could hear music. His head was filled with melodies - different each time - which he then made use of when composing. Moving his head back level immediately stopped the music." (p78) This explains how Beethoven could still compose even when he was deaf. Che Guevara, on the other hand, was rhythm-deaf. Freud didn't care about music at all. Tolstoy didn't like it because it had the power to induce in him "fictitious" states of mind.

On page 126 Oliver Sacks talks about Rachel, who has "a difficulty in synthesizing the elements of an entire scene at a glance... thus she would notice one thing, then another, then a third". When I read it I thought that's how I do! At least when I enter a room filled with people...

Absolute pitch is often mentioned and funnily enough, it might not always be a blessing! In fact, it makes it a pain to hear anyone out of tune and even transposing a song can screw it all up! (p132) The absolute pitch may shift with age (p133) making it even worse, because the F might change to an E-flat! This is a capacity that can be trained as a kid. 50% of the children born blind have absolut pitch! (p135) The language matters too - far more Chinese (Chinese being a tonal language) than English (non-tonal) speaking people have absolute pitch. (p136)

The brain and ear are forming a two-way system where the brain can tune (via the outer hair cells) the inner hair cells. (p146) This ability makes it possible to pick out a single voice in a crowd eg.

Not all people are lucky enough to have symphonies playing in the head. Some people hear an awful noise, or screaming, when they listen to music! (p112)

A book is often mentioned by Sacks - The Oxford Companion to Music. I need to check out that book!

There is a brain phenomenon called synesthesia. It can have different effects, but usually a tone or a key or an instrument is seen as a colour. (p180) This effect can increase with increasing deafness or blindness.

Music is not just notes and instruments, it's somehow more of a feeling. And there are different kinds of memory, one of the strongest being the emotional memory. Music being very emotional is therefore often very well remembered! So if you one day don't feel the music anymore - watch out! You might have had a stroke or something...

When I read the book I first thought I'm not musical at all. After all, I don't invent symphonies in my head! On the other hand I hear music most of the time, and I certainly feel music (if it's any good) and I have some kind of pitch, just need to train it... Maybe I'm just normal???

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