Oliver Sacks was one of my favorite science writers.  (He died a couple of years ago, sadly.)  He was a neurologist, best known for the book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  He wrote about things we’d learned about the workings of the mind through people who’d suffered brain damage.  And the book I want to talk about today is Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain — how our brains process music.

Humans are innately musical.  We can keep time.  We can remember songs as if we’d heard them yesterday, correctly recalling the pitch and rhythm despite not having heard the songs in years.  (Some people have better musical imagery than others; while one person can barely remember a tune, others can hear entire orchestras when they remember a piece.)  Newborn infants like music.  Deaf people enjoy music, if they can feel the vibrations, even if they’ve been deaf since birth.  Music is wired into us, body and soul.

Bobby McFerrin did a fantastic demonstration at the World Science Festival of how even the pentatonic scale is part of our evolutionary memory.  It’s worth watching.

Fascinating, isn’t it?  The thing is, we don’t know why we love music, make music, or even perceive music as, well, musical.  For the last two hundred years, scientists and philosophers have been arguing over whether music or language developed first in the early humans, or if they developed in tandem.  And they’re still arguing.

Brain lesions, illness, and injuries can produce various music-related effects on the brain.  Some unfortunate people have amusia — an inability to process music, hearing songs as random collections of sounds instead of as coherent melodies.  Some people (myself included) hallucinate music.  Music causes seizures in others.  Many people have heard of synthesia, where the brain’s sensory input gets muddled and people can see music (among other things, like colors having different smells).  And then there’s musicophilia — an extremely intense passion for listening to music, where none might have existed before.  Sacks even gives a case history of a man who was struck by lightning at age 42 and suddenly found himself able to write music, despite having no previous interest or talent.  (Too bad there’s not a way to get that without the lightning!) Temporal lobe seizures can bring on artistic and musical passions.  It’s the same area of the brain that produces mystical experiences and religious ecstasy.  (Apollonian Rausch, if you’re familiar with Nietzsche, who spend a lot of time describing those feelings.)

Imagining music can stimulate the auditory cortex as much as actually hearing music.  It also affects the motor cortex.  We hear music with our bodies as well as our minds: tensing muscles, changing facial expressions, tapping our feet.  Scientists have also found that imagining playing music stimulates both motor and auditory corteces. Visualizing yourself playing an instrument is nearly as effective as actually practicing, if it’s an instrument you know how to play or are learning to play.  Combining mental and physical practices has proven to be more effective than just physical practice alone, for musicians of any caliber.

Deliberately imagining music activates and strengthens regions of the frontal cortex, too.  The skill of musical imagery is why Beethoven was able to write music after he’d gone deaf — because his auditory cortex was still hearing music even if his ears weren’t.

Our brains form unconscious musical associations.  We can get a tune stuck in our heads without noticing how it got there, because we subconsciously remember the lyrics and our hidden brains make the association.  Speaking of tunes popping out of nowhere, there’s some evidence that our always-active basal ganglia occasionally throws out random patterns.  Those patterns can produce anything from a snatch of a song you haven’t heard in 20 years (and never even liked), to having the sudden random urge to go swimming.

(On a personal note, my basal ganglia must be kind of hyper, as I get constant, bizarre assortments of songs, as varied as Jermaine Stewart’s We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off (To Have a Good Time) [which, for the record, I haven’t heard since the 1980’s and have always loathed], the 1970’s Sesame Street song There are Chickens in the Trees, and JJ Fad’s Supersonic.  All in the space of an hour.  Curse you, basal ganglia!  It does it in my sleep, too.  Grrr.)

I’m going to stop here, because there is so much more in the book.  How music therapy can help autism and dementia.  How earworms work.  Clues about how all the musical dysfunctions I listed earlier might work, and how some are influenced by medications.  How musical skill happens.  All sorts of good information, written with Sacks’ wonderful clarity and humor.

A final comment: I joined the Amazon Affiliates program, so all book links now go to Amazon.  If you buy anything I recommend or refer to, I’d appreciate you going through my links to buy them.  Thanks.

Categories: Science


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