Musicophilia

“Every act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination”

-Gerald M. Edelman in the book I’m reading, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” by Oliver Sacks.

I’m awed time and time again by this idea that the experience of being is so fundamentally subjective. Our senses are not isolated apparatuses, passively transcribing reality as it exists and into our conscious grasps. As the input is filtered in from our eyes and ears and fingertips, it necessarily goes through the brain, and the brain manipulates: prioritizing, rationalizing – and not always with the consent of our own conscious minds.

“Musicophilia,” in which Sacks profiles case studies of eccentric auditory disorders, is a reminder of how absurdly intertwined every sound we hear is to our mischievous brains.

Many people, for example, seem to have “musical hallucinations.” A musical hallucination is when you hear a song in your head like it’s actually playing in the external world. They are often found in otherwise sane people concurrent with hearing loss, as the brain’s way of making up for the lost sensory input by creating its own soundtrack. I’m only about halfway through, but its crazy the way these frequencies can interact with the brain. Some people hallucinate songs in foreign languages they don’t know. Some people have lost the ability to attach emotion to music at all, or to perceive differences in pitch or rhythm. Others attach too much, so that a certain melody can send them into a seizure.

Sacks also refers to “musical imagery,” or, the way a song sounds when you play it back in your head. There is striking variance in how people hear music in their mind’s ear with some hearing full vivid symphonies in perfect tune and timing, others piecing together only vague wisps of melody.

I like to think my own musical imagery remains fairly faithful to the original. If instrumentation gets too dense or intricate, my mind does have the tendency of thinning aspects of the real song, but my memory of vocal tone always remains eerily crisp (which is strange considering my weak lyrical memory). Sometimes I’ll also create my own cerebral itunes visualizer, with swirls of pulsating colors and patterns. But that’s just imagination, not like the involuntary visualizations of those lucky bastards with synesthesia.

It’s easy to forget just how little we can really know about the experience of life for any other individual. Sometimes you’ll get a shared moment of appreciation, like when that perfect song comes on in the car and everyone just shuts up and gets lost in it. It feels like there’s this connection, this understanding that transcends all our differences. But really it’s a fraud. Maybe we’re all getting lost in it, but we’re wandering in different directions, and down different paths, in ways that we can never fully comprehend.

But I guess that’s what makes life so interesting. And I do believe that there are enough overlaps in experience that we don’t have to feel completely alone in this mess.

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2 Responses to “Musicophilia”

  1. Alex Gleckman Says:

    I read/liked that book too! Nice commentary.

  2. waltzofthesaltz Says:

    Thanks Alex!

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