Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Oliver Sacks, Alfred K. Knopf, 2007

In this book Dr. Sacks has revisited some of the knowledge and wisdom of the ancients regarding music. The power of music has been known in the world since the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and other great civilizations down to Shakespeare’s time and more recently. Shakespeare said that good music “can minister to minds disabled, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain.” Perhaps the German Romantic writer Novalis was familiar with this idea when he wrote, “Every disease is a musical problem, every cure a musical solution.”

The knowledge of the power of music is not surprising since, as Pythagoras discovered, all music can be reduced to numbers and mathematical ratios. He postulated that the entire universe and all phenomena therein could be explained in the same terms of particular numbers and the mathematical ratios found in music. Thus, music is related to, or is, primal sound. Pythagoras therefore concluded, “As in music, so in life.”

For whatever reasons, as has other great knowledge, the knowledge of the power of music has been largely lost or misplaced or ignored into the present time, but the gnosis is returning as scientists and other scholars rediscover it. This is inevitable as the cycle of awareness or consciousness returns us to universal recognition of the energy and power of music as it affects the individual and society.

Music—that is, sound—affects virtually every function of the human body. Perhaps it took a musically gifted neurologist like Sacks to notice the powerful and universal effect of music on people. This book is a compassionate yet scientific study of humans and their struggles with neurological conditions and music.

Though there was virtually no neuroscience of music before the 1980s, this is becoming a rapidly growing field as scientists, musicians, and others are increasing their studies of the effects of sound and other frequencies on every aspect of life, human and otherwise.

Sacks shows through his fascinating stories of neurological conditions that the relationship to music is one of the most characteristic elements of humans. We seem to be hard-wired for sound, and this begins early in life — a fetus shows response to music or sound at about twenty weeks, or even sooner. Are we then not hard-wired to the structure of the universe?

Music is energy, and, as we know, energy is information. Every body has its unique overall frequency, and every part or organ also has its unique particular frequency of health. Thus, the nature of the vibrations or frequencies “bathing” it elicit an unconscious response. Sacks has noticed, as have others, that the strongest response or connection may be the emotional one, though not to be far outdone by that of the heartbeat. Music “plays” the body/mind/spirit like an instrument.

Music is instinctively serial and extremely old. It appears to have always been—and still is—used in religious practices. Military music relies heavily on rhythm because of the linking of the auditory and motor systems. Sacks says that the elements of music—pitch, rhythm, tempo, melody, timbre—perhaps make a universal analogy and metaphor for the world. If music and the brain coevolved, understanding how music “plays” the brain and body might assist us in understanding more about the brain and, eventually, more about ourselves.

In working with many patients who had musicophilia—i.e., had been “captured” by music in various ways, almost as by an alien entity—Sacks discovered much both positive and negative about what music can do. It can transform people, change the capacity of the brain, and help with problems such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, aging, etc. Music can also help one, especially with early training, in areas such as mathematics and other scholastic subjects, as well as with discipline. There are many aspects of life that music can touch.

Sacks says, “[Music] seems to have no relation to the world. It has no concepts, no images or symbols like those of language—it only expresses the quintessence of life and its events, never the events themselves…. The tragic thing about music is that the sound dies as soon as it is born.” It is also tragic to see people lifted out of a strange neurological “nonworld” and connected to themselves for a brief moment, only to return to that nonworld when the sound is gone and the damaged brain takes over again. Music can take us to extremes—even to near-death experiences—and holds great therapeutic potential.

We have heard of great musicians such as Mozart and Beethoven “hearing” their compositions and just writing them down rather than actually composing them. So, if we are so hard-wired to the universe by sound, to what else might we be wired by it? Listen up!

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