Saturday, October 06, 2007

Is music a luxury?

Could scientific books on music until recently not afford not to include a chapter on the anatomy of the ear, currently most books on music have to include a chapter on the anatomy of the brain. The brain is 'cool, hip and happening'.

Luckily Oliver Sacks' new book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain does not include this obligatory chapter. Instead, he uses his familiar observational style in revealing his personal and medical interest in people with a particular brain disorder. In this book he focuses on music-related mental phenomena ranging from amusia and absolute pitch to dysharmonia and synesthesia, while also discussing the role of music in Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s and Williams syndrome. It is a book that fits in a trend of books by scholars that analyze and promote the importance of music in a wider perspective than is normally done by musical experts. Like Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neatherthals and Dan Levitin’s This is your brain on music, this book discusses what is so special about music, while it seriously wonders why some consider it a mere luxury (if not simply cheesecake).

In his book Sacks describes a series of medical cases where a neural deficit reveals something about the workings (or breaking down) of an intrinsic human quality we name ‘music’:
“We humans are a musical species no less than a linguistic one. This takes many different forms. All of us (with very few exceptions) can perceive music, perceive tones, timbre, pitch intervals, melodic contours, harmony, and (perhaps most elementally) rhythm. We integrate all of these and “construct” music in our minds using many different parts of the brain. And to this largely unconscious structural appreciation of music is added an often intense and profound emotional reaction to music. “The inexpressible depth of music,” Schopenhauer wrote, “so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.... Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.”
The book is a hopeful account of the role music can play in our lives and how our brain is involved in this. It will be released this November in many languages at the same time (I just read a preprint). So this will likely not be the last bit you read about it.

1 comment:

  1. I love Sacks, but I'm a little disappointed that in none of the interviews I've heard does he really tangle with the "cheesecake" possibility -- a possibility that is consistent with the notions that we are a "musical" species (in the sense defined in the excerpt) and that music elicits "intense and profound emotional reaction(s)." I share those reactions, but continue to be receptive (and uncomfortably so, given my lifelong personal and professional investment in music) to the substantial possibility that music is at best an insubstantial pleasure.