“Absolute pitch is not necessarily of much importance even to musicians – Mozart had it, but Wagner and Schumann lacked it. But for anyone who has it, the loss of absolute pitch may be felt as a severe privation. This sense of loss was clearly brought out by one of my patients. Frank V., a composer who suffered brain damage from the rupture of an aneurysm of the anterior communicating artery.”
In it, Dr Sacks writes about many strange and fascinating musical and mental topics. Absolute pitch is one, another is synaesthesia: a mingling of the senses in which musical intervals may have taste, or words and letters have colour. Sacks (a practising neurologist, famous as the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) describes a host of neurological conditions varying from the commonplace (the annoyingly catchy tune which won’t go away) to the extraordinary: people whose uncontrollable musical hallucinations extend to full symphonies; a man with extremely severe and utterly crippling amnesia (of the sort portrayed in the film Memento) who can nevertheless conduct a choir and sight-read music perfectly; a man with a lifelong uninterest in music, who develops an all-consuming passion for composing after being struck by lightning.
Perhaps the most remarkable chapter is that about Williams Syndrome: a rare genetic condition, resulting in a brain 20% smaller than average, and an IQ typically below 60 (comparable to that of a Down’s syndrome sufferer). People with this condition are usually unable to manage simple single-digit arithmetic. But along with these weaknesses come surprising strengths: they are often communicatively gifted, with extensive vocabularies. Very often they are singularly drawn to music. An example is Gloria Lenhoff, a celebrated singer with Williams syndrome who can perform operatic arias in over 25 languages.
Musicophilia doesn’t offer easy answers to the central questions of music and the mind. Music does seem to be hardwired into our brains at a deep level: musical ability can survive remarkably intact, even in brains ravaged by severe Alzheimer’s. Also suggestive is that each component of music (tempo, pitch, melody, harmony, timbre, rhythm) comes with its own form of amusia, where someone is unable to comprehend (for example) rhythm, but their understanding of melody and harmony is almost unimpaired. Similarly, the link between musical intelligence (the ability to understand music analytically) and its emotional impact is very weak: there are people with excellent ears, but whom music leaves cold; vice versa we all know people who can’t hold a single note, but who adore it.
One message to take away from this book, if you thought that “music therapy” was some sort of pseudo-medical hippy claptrap, is that you are profoundly wrong. It works: for example many Tourette’s sufferers find that drum-circles are a powerful way to overcome their symptoms. But beyond that, often it is the only thing which works: music can provide the sole way to communicate with otherwise unreachable minds.