Some years ago, on a break from an extended piano tour, I spent a weekend on the Aran Islands, off the coast of Ireland. After weeks of practice and performance I found the silence overwhelming, and my ear created sounds of its own to fill it: whistles, percussion, the occasional trombone. As I lay in bed I thought I heard a mallet strike my breastbone; the sound rippled through my body like a gong. It seemed that the accumulated noises of my life were taking their leave.
The neurologist Oliver Sacks offers a better explanation for this, alongside much else, in his new book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Picador, 370pp; $32.95). I was experiencing a “release hallucination” or “backflow”, stemming from “a critical deficiency of input from the sense organs”. My musical hallucinations stopped when I returned to the noise of civilisation and piano keyboards; others suffer from them chronically, ranging from the complex to the absurd: “one night I heard a splendidly solemn rendition of ‘Old Macdonald Had a Farm’,” a patient tells Sacks, “followed by thunderous applause.” Sacks explains that “we humans are a musical species no less than a linguistic one.” His book operates as a set of variations on this theme, offering no other central argument but charting the many ways in which music is expressed in our minds, from hallucinations to synaesthesia and absolute pitch.
A collector by nature, Sacks packs his book with curios: case studies, facts and quotations. I stocked my own notebook with a range of its marvels, from the poetic aside that “fetal horses may gallop in the womb” to phenomena I recognised from my own musical experience, such as the tactile pleasure of playing the piano (“touch heaven”, according to the Tourette’s sufferer Nick Van Bloss). But it is the case studies that lie at the centre of Sacks’s work, many of which have a supernatural quality. The “hypermusical” sufferers of Williams syndrome, for instance, might be visitors from an elf-world: they have “wide mouths and upturned noses, small chins, and round, curious, starry eyes”. Sacks is charmed by these people, with their “extraordinary loquacity, effervescence, fondness for telling stories, reading out to others, fearlessness of strangers, and, above all, a love of music”. The book’s opening story seems no less fantastical, as a bolt of lightning strikes the surgeon Tony Cicoria, filling him not with superhero powers but with music. “I was possessed,” he tells Sacks; music came in “an absolute torrent”. In Sacks’s measured telling, such a story reads like a parable, though without a clear lesson. His writing tends towards observation rather than conclusion. Seductively, he seems to enlist the reader in his own enquiries.
In the Nation several years ago, Alexander Cockburn accused Sacks of delivering a type of freak show; the geneticist Tom Shakespeare memorably dubbed him “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career”. As a physician and a writer, Sacks maintains a delicate ethical position. Should illness never be spoken of in polite society? Is it objectification to classify human beings by their medical conditions? There is a hint of anxiety about this in some of Sacks’s qualifications: “despite their individuality,” he writes of sufferers of Williams syndrome (the italics are mine), “they seemed like members of a single tribe.” G Thomas Couser addresses these charges in his thoughtful essay ‘Beyond the Clinic: Oliver Sacks and the Ethics of Neuroanthropology’, and finds that Sacks’s work “passes muster on minimal ethical criteria”.
In fact, Sacks’s work is the opposite of a freak show, in that it makes dignity its central concern. He is a writer of reassurance, even as he charts the fragility of the human mind and the havoc that mind is capable of. Occasionally his essays are overladen with evidence, but at its best his prose is frank, rigorous and moving, itself a testament to the power of the mind. He describes the Alzheimer’s sufferer Woody Geist, who loses everything but music: singing “can give him back himself, and not least, it can charm others, arouse their amazement and admiration - reactions more and more necessary to someone who, in his lucid moments, is painfully aware of his tragic disease and sometimes says that he feels ‘broken inside’.” These are stories that cut straight to our sense of self; Sacks’s solicitude for human dignity is often their only consolation.
The most terrifying of his tales - an eerie chamber of mirrors - is that of the English musician Clive Wearing. He and his wife, Deborah, had read one of Sacks’s articles about amnesia (Sacks’s fame is so widespread he is now part of the landscape he surveys). “Clive and I could not get this story out of our heads,” Deborah wrote, “and talked about it for days.” Two months later, Clive Wearing suffered encephalitis and extreme amnesia, with access to only a few seconds of memory. This is disconcerting to the reader who imagines that exposure to these stories offers some kind of inoculation. Robbed of his past, Wearing is also robbed of his present: “thought itself was almost impossible within this tiny window of time.” But he retains his musical abilities, which give him comfort, and he retains the ability to love and be loved. “Clive and Deborah are still very much in love with each other,” Sacks writes, noting how Clive “kisses and embraces Deborah expertly”.
The notion of music as consolation runs through these tales like a pedal point. Sacks quotes William James’s contention that our “susceptibility to music” has “no zoological utility”. He advances a few reasons for that susceptibility, without committing to any of them. The most enchanting of these is Steven Mithen’s theory of a sung language among Neanderthals: music as a type of ur-language, over-ridden by words. It is an attractive idea, not least because it accounts for the difficulty of wrestling music into words (most attempts feel like a guess, at best a half-truth). If Mithen is correct, then perhaps our hankering after music stems from an ancestral nostalgia for this deeper language. Music can offer a more immediate emotional transmission, almost a type of telepathy.
Others would disagree. Les Murray has described music variously as “the vast nonsense poem” and “thought that means everything at once”. I never quite believed in his musical indifference, which seemed belied by his poetry, but Sacks observes that “indifference to music’s emotional power may occur in highly intelligent and motivated people with Asperger’s syndrome,” and notes that Nabokov also found music to be “merely an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds”. He lists a number of scientists who repudiated music because they could not explain it, such as Freud, who declared, “some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.”
Sacks is a different kind of scientist and is prepared to be moved by a thing without knowing why. One of his favourite patients, Harry S, laments the loss of “wonder” after a brain aneurism. “‘Wonder’,” Sacks says, “had been at the core of his previous life.” Wonder is also at the core of Sacks’s writing. He is a compiler of tragedies who calls himself a Jewish atheist, but his work is so illuminated by wonder that it reads as a song of praise. And in this wunderkammer of a book, music emerges as Sacks’s greatest treasure, its mystery still unavailable to science.
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