The combined worlds of psychology, medicine, science, and music lost a true master last week with the passing of Oliver Sacks. Sacks, perhaps best known for authoring books in which he chronicled the accounts of some of his most interesting and inspiring patients, was particularly taken with music, using it in his personal recuperation methods and, of course, never failing to detail the results.
In his U.S. best-selling book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, the infectiously curious and observant Sacks investigates how music has affected the neurological workings of the human brain, uncovering some remarkable tales as he goes.
It makes for a compelling read; there are stories here which will stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. In homage to the loss of a man who made it his mission to understand how we work – and in this case, how music makes us work – here are five of the strangest stories from the book.
The man who was afraid of music
In the nineteenth century, a prominent music critic by the name of Nikonov published a pamphlet entitled The Fear of Music. In it he described how, although incredibly knowledgeable about music and not at all new to it, he began having seizures whenever he heard it. The more seizures he had, the more and more terrified of hearing music he became, until he had developed a full-blown phobia.
The deaf woman with musical hallucinations
Although neurologically and psychiatrically normal by examination, a woman by the name of Mrs. C., who had experienced progressive and rather grave nerve damage hearing loss for fifteen years, began one day to hear what sounded like bells clanging. Within a few minutes, as though a radio dial had been turned, fragments of songs began to play, clearly enough to be distracting. Songs played in what her mind identified as her “ear” day after day, from waking to sleeping, unless her mind was “intellectually engaged”.
When she was finally fitted with a cochlear implant, the modulated tones of actual music playing, being nothing like the melodies that had been keeping her company for so long, were so harsh that she developed a distaste for music altogether.
The man who had no emotions – except when he sang
Harry S. was one of Oliver Sacks’ favorite patients. An MIT-educated mechanical engineer, Mr. S. was rendered almost entirely emotionless after a brain aneurysm ruptured, leaving him in a coma for weeks, with a severely impaired set of functions when he awoke.
Post-stroke, although he made some progress, Harry failed to show empathy or response to the emotional expressions of others.
When Harry sang – in particular, Irish ballads – his emotive capacity was off the charts.
The man who sees a different color for each note
Synesthesia is a curious psychological phenomenon, typically characterized by the blending of two senses in unusual ways.
Michael Torke, a notable present-day composer, has experienced synesthesia when listening to music for his entire life. Each note has a color. Combinations of notes, such as scales and arpeggios, have distinct color patterns, and they have remained the same since he was young. His musical synesthesia is so sophisticated that the colors of major and minor keys are even related: different shades of yellow are seen when he hears G minor and major, for example.
The man with absolute pitch
Forget perfect pitch. Folks with what is known as absolute pitch are able to identify, without comparison or hesitation, the pitch of any note.
Gordon B. was a professional violinist who had been gifted with this ability. In the later part of his career, he developed tinnitus, and when he consulted Dr. Sacks about it, stated rather casually that his ears rang in the key of “high F natural”.
What about you? What’s your strangest experience with music?