The sounds of music

<strong>Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain</strong>

Oliver Sacks <em>Picador, 352pp, £17.

The day after finishing Oliver Sacks's new collection of bonnes bouches from the neurological kitchen, I had a letter from one of our leading poets, Kathleen Jamie:

I must confess . . . my utter failure with
music. I’m sorry to say it but it’s true. Maybe
there’s something wrong with my ears. I can’t
listen to music, especially classical music,
except with pained bewilderment. I’ve never
been to a concert, or even played a classical
CD right through.

This chimes exactly with Sacks's description of the condition of "amusia". He quotes Vladi mir Nabokov:

Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an
arbitrary succession of more or less irritating
sounds . . . The concert piano and all wind
instruments bore me in smaller doses and flay
me in larger ones.

Sacks introduces us to Mrs , who throughout her life has found music meaningless and intolerable. At last she has contacted one of Sacks's colleagues, by whom

she was reassured that the condition was
“real”, not in her mind – and that others
had it as well . . . She wishes that the diagnosis
of amusia had been made when she
was seven rather than seventy –
this might have saved her
from a lifetime of being
bored or excruciated by
concerts, to which she
went only out of
politeness . . .

Jamie, Nabokov and Mrs lie near one end of a huge and fruity range of human conditions spread out for our delectation. Somewhere near the other end are those who have never previously shown any interest in music but who, when their brain has been damaged by a motor accident, a stroke and, in one case, a lightning bolt, suddenly discover astonishing musical powers and even reinvent themselves as performers and composers.

Much of Sacks's meat in between is concerned with the great variety of ways musicality and a startling appetite for music can be present in those afflicted by appalling and often all too common brain degenerations and dementias. Among the weirder stories from his long clinical experience are those that show how memory for melody or rhythm can exist where other forms of memory have been destroyed.

Like many masters of the haute vulgarisation (Dawkins, Schama, Winston, and the rest), Sacks has had his share of scorn heaped upon him. I noticed an example the other day in James Fenton's sceptical Guardian review of another popular book on music and the mind, This Is Your Brain on Music, by one of Sacks's colleagues, Daniel J Levitin, who is several times cited admiringly towards the end of Musico philia. Fenton brusquely dismissed Levitin on the harmfulness of Wagner: "Oh, come on. Levitin should do himself a favour and listen a little less to Oliver Sacks and a little more to Daniel Barenboim."

Fenton's preference for Barenboim over Sacks seems odd, unless he has in mind the musician's playing and con ducting. On the evidence of his Reith Lectures last year and published conversations with Edward Said, Barenboim hardly provides a better model of how one should talk about music than Professor Sacks.

Still, Fenton's remark did prompt me to wonder why I find Sacks's stories, however curious, disturbingly unsatisfactory. Perhaps it is that reading such loosely linked sequences of pec uliar tales feels like going to a peep show or wandering in a zoo, an effect compounded by Sacks's sweetly confidential prose style. It is hard to see what he wants us to take away from the whole rather than the parts. No doubt this is precisely why so many people find his books mesmerising.

A bigger problem is what he says about music. There are muddled references to particular pieces and technical matters, and an amateurish account of how Tchaikovsky composed as opposed to how Beethoven did, which do not inspire confidence. An intriguing mention of Ravel's disastrous mental decline at the end of his life is undermined by a dinner party-like attempt to connect this to the repetitiveness of the composer's Bolero that ignores both what the piece is and what the composer most interestingly said about it.

Sacks also mentions perfect pitch rising with age when he seems to mean that it falls, an experience vividly described by Benjamin Britten when he said that Wagner's Meistersinger Prelude (a piece in C major) seemed to him to be in C sharp. Britten's C had actually dropped to a B. Something similar happened to the late Sviatoslav Richter, who gave this as one reason why he played from scores where previously he had played from memory. He needed to be able to see the music for his mind to countermand his ears in the urge to transpose the music down into a lower key where it would have sounded right to him, but wrong to us.

In fact, many of Sacks's neurological stories set me thinking of musical stories such as this. For instance, he mentions at one point a deafness-like condition where the middle range sounds normal, but as the music goes lower or higher, it distorts with hideous effect. This sounds like what happened to the great French composer Gabriel Fauré, whose reaction was to give up playing the piano and refuse to listen to concerts or his own music. "No, no, I only hear awful things!" he said. But this deeply unpleasant condition had an astonishing effect on Fauré's imagination, driving him away from normal musical practice and into an interior world of remarkable harmonic originality, beauty and profundity.

Ah, yes! Profundity. In his review of Levitin, Fenton complained that "the bulk of the music Levitin is talking about is American or British pop". The same cannot be said of Sacks, who makes reference to many kinds of music and rejoices in the high culture of his own musical upbringing. And yet there is little here to suggest recognition of different levels of complexity and different kinds of meaning. Music seems to have been reduced to a single flat plane of significance.

Perhaps this is inevitable, given that this is really a book about the mind and not about music. It does, however, provoke wonder about music, and most of all in those moments when Sacks talks about music's connection to our motor functions, to our bodies. He men tions the comment by Nietzsche: "We listen to music with our muscles." Now there's a thought, es pecially when we think how it might apply to how we perceive not a pop song, but a late Beethoven quartet.

Gerard McBurney is a composer and creative programming adviser to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan