If music be the food of love, play on

By Colin McGinn
The New York Review of Books
Volume 55, Number 3, March 6, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
by Oliver Sacks
Knopf, 381 pages

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.

Oliver Sacks is fascinated both by the normality of this oddity and by its abnormal manifestations. His interest is in the pathologies of musical response. We never lose sight of the human being exhibiting the pathology, but we are also continually reminded of the role of the brain.

Sacks notes that not only do human beings listen to music a lot, they also imagine music constantly. Even if your ears aren't being musically stimulated, you may be self-stimulating musically the rest of the time. Sometimes, we voluntarily produce musical images, as when we sing a song to ourselves for the fun of it, but we can also be subject to involuntary musical imagery.

Sacks calls these "brainworms" and the term is appropriate: musical imagery can be remarkably intrusive and annoying, subverting our ability to control our own imaginative lives. It gets in there and it won't let go. That is the "normal" case, but it can get much worse in abnormal cases. In those who suffer from musicogenic epilepsy, convulsions are brought on by musical stimulation.

The range of human musicality is also remarkable. There are musical savants with unusually low general intelligence and poor linguistic capacity. Some people are deaf to melody but can appreciate rhythm, and some have the reverse problem. Then there is the phenomenon of musical synesthesia, in which particular notes are associated with visual impressions.

The human memory for music is generally excellent. People can remember songs from their childhood, for example, with striking accuracy. Musical memory connects with our sense of self, since musical taste and experience are closely linked to personality and emotion.

The capacity of melody to soothe and rhythm to excite is obvious to anyone with musical sensitivity. Music is so intimately connected with emotion and movement that its power can be tapped to elicit both sorts of response. Music is known to excite the motor cortex even when the listener isn't actually moving.

In severe depression, say after bereavement, music may lose its appeal, sounding flat and pointless. Yet, as Sacks reports from personal experience, it may also be the trigger that lifts profound depression. In dementia, dormant musical powers can be released, as the more cognitive functions deteriorate.

Sacks tends to treat all music as psychologically equivalent. It might have been useful to ask how different musical forms affect the mind and brain. The increasing dominance of rhythm in popular music, at its starkest in rap music, must surely tell us something about how the human brain responds to music.

Sacks generally eschews theoretical speculation, but he does raise one theoretical possibility on the notion of disinhibition. This theory suggests that the brain contains untapped potential that is released only in unusual conditions. In the case of music, it may be that we are potentially far more musical than we appear, if only our musical brain wasn't being held in check by the rest of our brain.

Although Sacks endorses the notion of a music instinct, he says little about why such an instinct might have arisen. The ability to sing and dance well serves to attract mates, because it signals intelligence, agility, and emotional quality. From this point of view, musical ability looks like an evolutionary advantage. We are a musical species because our success in the mating game depends upon it. Why is the love song the most popular form of music in the world? Because love songs are about the selection of mates.

Oliver Sacks reminds us of our extreme psychological complexity, and of the fragility of the human mind. From the inside, the mind can seem simple and automatic, like a pearl in an oyster, but actually it all depends on the complex orchestration of the millions of neurons that compose our brains. If anything goes even slightly amiss in the machinery, the mind can be altered beyond recognition.

AR Ah, music ... Colin can write decent book reviews when he tries.

Ross on McGinn on life and mind

Ross on McGinn on Honderich